Elijah Black is a Greenville, South Carolina native with a B.A. English from Coastal Carolina University. He is a fiction writer and also works as a freelance writer and editor. He’s worked as a Production Assistant for WYFF 4 and has been published in several publications and websites across the United States.

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Rachael Brennan has been working in the insurance industry since 2006 when she began working as a licensed insurance representative for 21st Century Insurance, during which time she earned her Property and Casualty license in all 50 states. After several years she expanded her insurance expertise, earning her license in Health and AD&D insurance as well. She has worked for small health in...

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Reviewed by Rachael Brennan
Licensed Auto Insurance Agent

UPDATED: Apr 1, 2021

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It’s hard for a parent to imagine a child as young as 12 drinking or using drugs. This may be precisely the reason why many parents wait to talk to their kids about substance use, often until it is too late. It’s important to have many open conversations about drugs and alcohol with your child—far before they are ever caught experimenting or get in trouble at school.

Table of Contents

Drug and alcohol education is just as important for the parent as it is for the child

Kids need to learn the harmful and potentially fatal effects of underage alcohol and drug use. Parents need to learn how to talk to their kids about illicit substances, as well as how to recognize early warning signs of drug and alcohol use.

It is hard to deny the statistics. Drug Abuse tells us that roughly 23.9 million Americans ages 12 and older used drugs in 2012, or 9.2% of the population.

Drug use may include illicit drugs or psychotherapeutic medication abuse, such as stimulants, tranquilizers, and pain relievers, within the past month. The amount of drug abusers ages 12 and older has risen significantly since 2002, with an increase of 8.3%.


Within the past 30 days, 26.4% of young adults ages 12-20 drank alcohol. In this group, 17.4% admitted to binge drinking.

72% of all students have consumed alcohol by the time they finish high school
44% of young adults have tried cigarettes by the 12th grade
After six years of steady decline, illicit drug use increased among young adults ages 12-17 from 9.3% to 10%.

In 2008, the highest levels of dependence or abuse within the past year were for marijuana at 4.2 million, pain relievers at 1.7 million, and cocaine at 1.4 million. The marijuana use rate among young adults (ages 12-17) is 6.7%.

These statistics are sobering. Parents may be even more shocked to learn the exact age when young adults are most likely to take their first alcoholic drink.

Based on the chart above, the average age of first time alcohol use is 14.

Just one year later, by the age of 15, more than half of teens at 62% have had their first drink. This is not discounting the fact that a large percentage of preteens at 25% have their first alcoholic drink at age 12 or younger. SAMHSA statistics confirm that 5.4 million young adults ages 12 and older used marijuana daily or almost daily within the past 12 months in 2012.

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Where do kids get access to drugs and alcohol? What makes it so easy to try their first drink or use their first drug?

Much of this problem boils down to peer pressure. As the statistics above indicated, more than half of kids drank at someone else’s house.

This means that, most often, minors experimenting with alcohol or drugs are likely to be in the company of friends. They may get alcohol from a parent’s liquor cabinet in order to have their first alcoholic drink. They may use drugs they find at home or experiment with drugs from friends that have been purchased from a drug dealer.

The average age at which kids first try drugs and alcohol
dropped dramatically from 17-19 to 12-13 in 2007.
– Odyssey House statistics

According to NIDA drug survey results, 11% of eighth graders drank in the past month, compared to 28% of 10th graders and 42% of 12th graders. Binge drinking occurred at smaller percentages yet still in alarming amounts. 5% of eighth graders reported binge drinking five or more drinks in a row in the past two weeks compared to 24% of 12th graders.

Where do kids drink?

Parents can take this as an indicator that open conversations about substance use should be mandatory. As we start to discuss the repercussions of drug and alcohol use with our children, we can do our part to lower these numbers. Underage drinking and drug use may never go away entirely, but educating children about the dangerous effects could save a life.

Parents have the most influence on whether or not their child will drink alcohol

All hope isn’t lost. Kids are listening, especially when a parent reaches out to start the conversation. According to the chart below, parents have the most influence on whether or not their child will drink alcohol, compared to TV, friends, siblings, teachers, and media:

As a parent who may feel out of control in the drug and alcohol culture of today’s youth, this is wonderful news. All you have to do is start the conversation.

The Effects of Alcohol and Drugs on a Child’s Body

Underage drinking and drug use is not only illegal and dangerous, but it is a public health risk. Talking to children and teenagers about the health effects of drinking and drug use is one powerful way to paint a clearer picture of the dangerous reality that is substance abuse.

Risks of underage drinking

Short-term risks

  • Vulnerability—related to impaired judgment, along with impulsive behavior during puberty
  • Increased likelihood of unprotected sex
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Dehydration, as alcohol is a diuretic
  • Weight gain and obesity, related to the high calorie content of alcohol
  • Restless/abnormal sleep patterns

Long-term risks

  • Liver damage
  • Slowed brain development, affecting behavior, emotions, judgment, and reasoning
  • Long-term impact on reaction, attention span, and memory
  • Poor school performance
  • Binge drinking or alcoholism later in life
  • Long-term health risks associated with alcohol, including infertility, heart disease, stroke, and cancer
  • Death

Death is one of the major risk factors associated with underage drinking. According to The Surgeon General’s Call to Action To Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking, roughly 5000 people under the age of 21 die from alcohol-related injuries each year. Underage drinking is directly related to risky behaviors like drinking and driving, sexual assault, high-risk sex, and suicide.

Underage drug use can cause consequences, like:

  • Weakened immune system
  • Depression
  • Poor schoolwork
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of friends
  • Drug withdrawal

It can also lead to long-term repercussions, like:

  • Increased risk of pregnancy
  • Increased risk of STDs, including HIV
  • Increased risk of future drug and alcohol problems
  • Legal problems/jail time
  • Brain damage caused by overdose
  • Death caused by overdose

Underage drinking can detour academic success

Due to alcohol use:

Students who binge drink (5+ drinks/occasion) are 3 times more likely than those who don’t to get mostly Ds and Fs on their report cards.

Nearly 1 million youth under age 15 start drinking each year.

Preschool/Elementary School behavioral problems can increase risk of alcohol use in later years.

Alcohol harms the developing brain and affects learning. Drinking affects student performance at every level

Each drug may affect health in a different way. Seemingly minor health consequences may be especially damaging if drug use occurs during a critical time of development, in childhood or teenage years.

Even a popular drug like marijuana is not without negative health effects

Since marijuana is likely to be smoked, short-term use can trigger asthma and respiratory issues. Long-term use can cause bronchitis and chronic cough

When used in combination with alcohol, marijuana can affect blood pressure and cognitive performance. Withdrawal symptoms of the drug include restless sleep, irritability, nightmares, cravings, and anxiety.

Experimentation with drugs and alcohol at a young age can lead to a long road of addiction that may prove fatal. A child or teenager who drinks alcohol may experience distorted vision and coordination, altered emotions and perceptions, impaired judgment, and even vitamin deficiencies and cirrhosis of the liver over long-term use. Illegal drug use is increasingly dangerous, especially depending on the drug, and can often lead directly to an overdose.

How to Recognize the Signs of Underage Drug and Alcohol Use

Starting a trustworthy conversation about drugs and alcohol with your child is largely related to recognizing the early warning signs of substance use. You may think that you would know it when you see it. You may have used drugs or alcohol in the past and feel confident that you would immediately notice changes in your own child.

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Staying familiar with the signs of substance use in children and
teenagers will help you to remain vigilant as a parent. Watch for:

  • Abrupt mood/attitude changes
  • Physical, emotional, or mental changes/problems
  • Increased hostile/irritable behavior
  • Staying awake late at night and sleeping all day
  • Sudden change in school attendance/performance
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Newly rebellious behavior against household rules
  • Asking for/stealing money
  • Newly rebellious behavior against school rules
  • Secrecy over personal possessions
  • Sudden withdrawal from family and friend relationships
  • New group of friends
  • Despondent attitude that “nothing matters”
  • Alcohol or drugs hidden in belongings

Heavy drug or alcohol use can cause noticeable changes in appearance and behavior

“Sudden” is the operative word here. Your child may have sudden changes in appetite or sleep patterns. Their physical appearance may suddenly deteriorate, or they may drastically change their personal style in order to fit in with a new group of friends. Many parents of teen substance abusers observe that they start to care less about their physical appearance as substance use increases.

At times like these, it really is important to remember that you know your child best

If you observe sudden lifestyle or personality changes, talk to your child right away. It may be difficult to open up the lines of communication if your child has already withdrawn or is a regular substance abuser. Persist until you help your child open up. Do not hesitate to seek professional help if your child appears to be in danger in any way.

How to Teach Kids About Drugs and Alcohol by Age Group

Most parents want to believe the best of their children. Depending on what generation you grew up in, it may be hard to grasp that a child as young as 10 or 12 would ever fathom trying drugs or alcohol. For this reason, experts recommend talking to children at an even younger age than ever before about substance abuse, laying the foundation as early as preschool.

The right time to talk with your child about drugs and alcohol is now.

Many parents mistakenly believe that children will not experiment until their teenage or college years. However, the conversation must begin as early as possible. By the time a child enters preschool, they have already seen adults smoking and drinking multiple times—in person, on TV, or on the Internet.

Opening the lines of communication is the only way to educate kids about drug and alcohol use. Another misconception among parents is that school drug education is enough. While drug education has existed in schools since the 1800s, substance abuse rates continue to get worse. One 2012 study even indicated the shocking result that one in five teenagers drink, use drugs, or smoke during the school day without a fear of getting caught. No parent, child, or family is immune to the effects of drugs.

Dan Reist, a Canadian addiction researcher, believes that modern drug education programs are flawed. He asserts that substance abuse may stem from “social pressures that students can be trained to resist.”
In order to remain effective, school wide drug education must evolve with each age group.

Drug education in elementary school may no longer offer effective principles to prevent drug use in teens. Students in middle school and high school may benefit more from drug education curricula that underscores the value of positive decision-making and personal commitment, especially in social circles.

Parents play a critical role in all drug education, inside and outside of school. Parents start the conversation; the school may continue the message with age-appropriate information on substance abuse. Kids can take home what they learn in school to discuss with their parents. This will further establish trust in a relationship that openly communicates about drug and alcohol use.

As surveys indicate, underage substance use is greatly influenced by the parent.

You can do your part to educate your child on the realities of drug and alcohol use with these top 10 tips:

  • Lay the foundation by talking
    about healthy food and the
    health of the body.
  • Spend time building your child’s
    self-esteem—emphasize that they are
    too precious to harm their body.
Middle School
  • Talk about the potential for drug and alcohol use among friends and how your child may react.
  • Discuss real-world consequences of drug and alcohol use for teens and adults, including lung cancer from smoking, fatal car accidents from drinking, and drug addiction and overdose.
Elementary School
  • Help your child understand the difference between foods, poisons, prescription medicines, and illegal drugs.
  • Explain the immediate consequences of tobacco, alcohol, and drug use in small and large amounts.
  • Explain the long-term consequences of drug and alcohol use.
  • Discuss how drugs and alcohol look “cool” on TV and the Internet.
High School
  • Discuss drugs and alcohol openly, especially the potentially fatal effects of overusing alcohol or drugs or combining the two.
  • Remind your teen that they can always feel safe discussing peer pressure and drug and alcohol use with you.

Don’t wait until it is too late. Even if your child hasn’t already experimented with tobacco, drugs, or alcohol, it’s time to start a conversation.