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Learning About Alcohol Problems and Your Teen

What is an alcohol problem?

An alcohol problem means having unhealthy or dangerous drinking habits, such as drinking every day or drinking too much at a time. Alcohol misuse can harm your teen and may cause your teen to harm others.

Your teen may think a drink or two is okay, even if it is illegal. But teens who drink are more likely to develop an alcohol problem than people who start drinking later in life.

Teens who continue to misuse alcohol may develop a strong need, or craving, for alcohol, and it may get harder to say "no" to drinking. Your teen may begin to find alcohol more fun than anything else. Or your teen may want to stop drinking but can't. They may become dependent on alcohol.

If your teen becomes dependent, then alcohol controls their life. Your teen may continue to drink even though it can harm relationships, lead to trouble with the law, and/or cause physical problems.

Why do teens drink alcohol?

Teens may drink alcohol for many reasons. They may want to:

  • Fit in with friends or certain groups.
  • Feel relaxed, or relieve anxiety or stress.
  • Feel good.
  • Have fun and take part in activities with others.
  • Try alcohol because they are curious.
  • Seem more grown up.
  • Rebel against parents.
  • Ease feelings of insecurity from lack of social skills or lack of confidence.
  • Escape problems. For example, teens may drink to try to:
    • Get rid of the symptoms of mental health problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or depression.
    • Forget about past trauma or abuse.

Why is it important to recognize alcohol use and deal with it?

Alcohol use affects the brain and causes changes in your teen's alertness, perception, movement, judgment, and attention. These changes may make your teen more likely to:

  • Risk their health and life. Alcohol use is a leading cause of death and injury from car crashes, suicide, violence, and drowning.
  • Have unprotected sex. This can lead to pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
  • Be sexually assaulted.
    • Sex without consent is sexual assault. If your teen has been sexually assaulted, they may come to you for help. The way that you respond to them is important. Positive and supportive responses are more likely to help your child as they recover from the assault. There are many resources to help you and your child recover from a sexual assault.
  • Be involved in a crime.
  • Have trouble at school or drop out of school.
  • Have health problems because of alcohol use.
  • Argue with family or grow apart from family.
  • Lose interest in activities they used to enjoy, like sports or music.

How do you know if your teen is drinking?

You may worry that your teen is drinking if they become withdrawn or negative. But remember that these behaviours are common for teens. Don't accuse your teen unfairly. Try to discover why your teen's behaviour has changed by telling them that you are concerned.

Look for a pattern or a number of changes. Your teen may have an alcohol problem if they:

  • Pay less attention to how they dress and look.
  • Are eating less and losing weight.
  • Have changes in sleeping patterns.
  • Have red and glassy eyes and often use eyedrops and breath mints.
  • Are doing worse in school or skipping school.
  • Seem to be hiding things from you and act sneaky.
  • Withdraw from your family and old friends. Your teen may have new friends that they don't want you to meet.

What can you do to prevent your teen from drinking?

  • Be a role model. Your attitude toward alcohol is one of the greatest influences on whether your teen will drink. Do not misuse alcohol. Follow Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines by having no more than 2 drinks a day for females or 3 drinks a day for males.
  • Learn about alcohol. Find out what the signs of drinking are. Learn how alcohol can harm your teen's growth and development.
  • Share your beliefs. Teens need to know what you think about important issues, including alcohol use. Talk with your teen about what drinking can do physically and emotionally. If you have a family history of dependency, talk with your teen about their increased risk for alcohol problems.
  • Stay connected. Set times when the family is expected to be together, such as at mealtimes. Plan family outings or other family-fun activities. Let your teen know that you value them and that they contribute to the family. Get to know your teen's friends, and know where your teen is at all times. Be awake and talk to your teen when they come home at night.
  • Be fair and consistent. Find a mix between supervising your teen and giving them privacy and independence. Set rules, and let your teen know what will happen if they break them. Always follow through and discipline your teen if they break the rules. But don't make the consequence too severe for the rule.
  • Encourage activities. Find things your teen likes to do, and keep them busy with those activities. Sports and playing in bands are two examples.

How can you help your teen say "no"?

You can teach your teen these ways to say "no" if they are offered a drink.

  • Look the person in the eye and say "No thanks." Sometimes that is all you need to do. Say it as many times as you need to. Also ask the person not to ask you again: "I'm cool with my decision, so don't bother me again."
  • Say why you don't want to drink. Here are some examples: "I don't like how I act when I'm drinking," "I like to know what I'm doing," "If my parents find out, they'll take my car away," or "I have to practice with my band tomorrow."
  • Walk out. It's okay to leave a party or group where others are drinking.
  • Offer another idea. "I'd rather play video games" or "Let's listen to some music." By doing this, you might also prevent your friend from drinking.
  • Ask for respect. Make it clear that you don't want to drink and that continuing to ask you is showing no respect for your opinions. "I don't give you a hard time, so why are you giving me a hard time?"
  • Think ahead. If you think you might go someplace where people are drinking, don't go. But if you do go, think in advance about what you will do if someone offers you a drink.

How is an alcohol problem treated?

Treatment depends on how bad your teen's alcohol problem is. Some teens are able to stop drinking with help from a school alcohol education program or a counsellor. Treatment also can include group therapy. Teens who are dependent on alcohol may need medical treatment and may need to stay in a hospital or treatment centre.

Treatment focuses on more than alcohol. It also helps your teen cope with the anger, frustration, sadness, and disappointment that often happen when a person tries to stop drinking.

Treatment also looks at other parts of your teen's life, like relationships with friends and family, school and work, medical problems, and living situation. It helps you and your teen find and manage problems. Treatment helps your teen take control of life so that they don't have to depend on alcohol.

An alcohol problem affects the whole family. Family counselling often is part of treatment.

Where can you learn more?

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