Not The Usual When It Comes to Talking With Your Teen About Drinking

Lisa Frederiksen

It's difficult to know what to say to an older teen when it comes to drinking alcohol -- especially when "everybody's doing it." One approach is to share information from the perspective of how to stay safe when around friends who are drinking. Here are three informational conversation starters for these kinds of talks:

1. Did you know alcohol is not processed like other foods and liquids, which is why a person acts the way they do when drunk? Alcohol enters the bloodstream through the walls of the small intestine. Because alcohol dissolves in water, the bloodstream carries it throughout the body (which is 60-70% water) where it is absorbed into body tissue high in water content, such as the brain. The liver metabolizes alcohol – meaning that’s how it leaves the body – we can’t vomit, sweat or urinate it out. That’s because alcohol is not digested like other foods or liquids. It takes the liver about one hour (often up to two) to metabolize the alcohol in one standard drink.  Four drinks will take four hours. There are many variables that influence how quickly alcohol is metabolized, including weight, gender, stress, medications, and stage of brain development. Notice the last one -- stage of brain development. The teen brain goes through some key developmental processes, especially through one's early 20s. Because the teen brain is not fully developed, young drinkers are more vulnerable than adults to many of the effects of alcohol in some areas of the brain -- areas that control and modulate emotion, memory, learning, motivation and judgment, for example, AND less vulnerable in other areas -- areas that control drowsiness or lack of coordination. The latter is partly what gives the perception that a young drinker can "handle" their drinking.

Because the brain is mostly water and highly vascularized (meaning lots of blood vessels) and it controls everything we think, feel, say and do, the excess alcohol (waiting its turn out the liver) stays in the bloodstream and suppresses certain brain functions, such as the ability to “think” straight and act normally. This is why a person can find him/herself engaging in the drinking behaviors listed in #2.

2. Did you know there’s actually a “number of drinks” definition for binge drinking, which is often how people get into trouble – too much alcohol sitting in the brain suppresses brain function. Binge drinking is defined as having 4 or more standard drinks on an occasion for women and 5 or more for men. Binge drinking can cause a person to engage in drinking behaviors – even if the drinking pattern occurs only once, like those listed below:

    • Fighting with friends or family about the drinking; saying or doing things you don’t remember or regret.
    • Experiencing blackouts – fragmentary or complete; vomiting; passing out.
    • Driving while under the influence; riding in a car with someone who is.
    • Having unplanned or unprotected sex.
    • Being admitted to the emergency room with a high BAC
    • Doing poorly at work or school because of recovering from the drinking.

And by the way: “normal” or “low-risk” drinking limits are defined as: no more than 3 standard drinks on any one day or 7 in a week for women and no more than 4 standard drinks on any day or 14 in a week for men.

3. Did you know there’s such a thing as a “standard drink?”  Often people get into trouble with drinking because they aren’t aware of concepts, such as a standard drink, which is defined as 5 ounces of table wine, 12 ounces of regular beer, 8-9 ounces of malt liquor (think ale or lager beers), or 1.5 ounces of “hard liquor,” such as 80-proof vodka, gin, bourbon or scotch.

Not only are people unaware of the sizes of a standard drink of various alcoholic beverages, but they are also not fully aware of how many standard drinks are in common cocktails or drink containers. This confusion is what makes it so easy for a person to engage in binge drinking (defined in #2 above), which in turn changes brain function (and therefore behaviors) because of the way alcohol is processed by the body (see #1).

One approach for this conversation is to visit NIAAA’s website, Rethinking Drinking, together. They have some great calculator tools for conversations, such as: “If your friends are drinking, one way to keep yourself safe and to do what you can to keep them safe is to understand how many drinks are in a glass or container.  For example, did you know a tall beer contains 2 drinks? Using this drink size calculator, let’s see how many standard drinks are in a red cup of wine.”


BOTTOM LINE, sharing this kind of information with your teen empowers them. If a teen fully understands the concepts of a standard drink and a 'standard drinks count' for binge drinking, as examples, they can be prepared to:

  • count their friend’s drinks and better understand why their friend is behaving the way they are (because of alcohol’s impact on the brain while waiting to be metabolized by the liver)
  • know not to take to heart anything their friend says while under the influence (because alcohol’s impact on the brain changes a person’s behaviors)
  • know never to accept a ride, even if their friend has only had “a couple.”

The most important thing is to keep talking!

For additional conversation starters, check out my new eBook, Crossing The Line From Alcohol Use to Abuse to Dependence – just $3.99. [Link to  free apps to read Kindle on Mac, PC, iPhone, iPad...]


In order to comment on, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.

Trending Now

More Like This