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For most people, April conjures images of spring flowers, the Easter bunny and April Fool’s pranks. But for parents of teenagers, this month marks another important event: Alcohol Awareness Month.

It’s hard for parents to admit it, but most teens start drinking much earlier (and more often) than parents realize. Teen drinking is on the rise, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Data gathered between 2006 and 2008 from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health provided the following insights into underage drinking trends:

Roughly one-quarter (27.6 percent) of American youth between ages 12 and 20 said that they drank alcohol in the past month.
Underage drinking rates in the past month were as high as 40 percent in some states, including North Dakota and Vermont, compared to 13.7 percent in Utah.
About 8.6 percent of teenage drinkers said they purchased their own alcohol the last time they drank.

The dangers of teen alcohol abuse

Poster - Emergency Boat Because of its availability, affordability, and social acceptance, alcohol has long been teens’ primary drug of choice. Research has shown that young people who start drinking before age 15 are six times more likely to develop alcoholism than those who start drinking at 21 or older.

The risks of teen drinking have been frequently studied and well-documented. Teen alcohol use has been linked with car accidents, early sexual activity and unsafe sex, academic underachievement, alcoholism and criminal behavior. A recent study in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors shows that heavy drinking during adolescence can cause brain damage, which may negatively affect thinking and memory skills.

Teens who abuse alcohol are also more likely than their non-drinking peers to have behavioral problems, such as attention and conduct problems, or symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to a study in the online journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health. Although mental health problems frequently coincide with alcohol abuse, it is unclear whether drinking leads to psychological issues or teens use alcohol to self-medicate problems that already exist.

Talking to your teen about alcohol

Drinking is common among adolescents. According to teens, alcohol makes them feel at ease in social situations, helps them cope with stress and family conflict, and allows them to fit in with a certain peer group.

But teen drinking can be prevented and stopped. You can protect your teen from the physical, emotional and psychological risks of alcohol abuse by taking the following steps:

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Start a Conversation. SAMHSA emphasizes the importance of prevention and early intervention, encouraging parents of middle school children to talk to their kids about the dangers of alcohol before they start drinking. Ask your teen what they think about alcohol and friends who drink, and educate your child about the risks.

Set Clear Rules. Talk to your child about your expectations and set rules about leaving parties where alcohol is served and never drinking and driving (or riding in a car with someone who has been drinking). To ensure consistent enforcement of the rules, make sure you know where your teen is, what they are doing and whom they are with.

While some parents try to teach their teens responsible drinking by letting them consume alcohol at home, a study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs shows that this practice actually encourages teens to drink more and increases their risk of alcohol-related problems such as fighting and skipping school. Instead, experts recommend that parents prohibit their teen from drinking whether at home or outside the home, and do all they can to postpone the age at which their child takes their first drink.

Set a Good Example. Teens learn by watching what you do, not just what you say. If you drink, use alcohol moderately and explain the guidelines mature adults follow to make drinking as safe as possible, including never drinking and driving.

Build a Trusting Relationship. Your teen needs to know they can come to you if they have questions about drinking, have experimented with alcohol or need a ride home from a party. If you build a strong, open and trusting relationship, you can boost your child’s self-esteem and instill your values.

Get Help. If you know your teen is drinking, there is a good chance they are drinking more than you realize. Get help before your teen’s drinking spirals out of control or leads to abuse of other drugs. There are alcohol treatment programs for teens as well as sober high schools and transitional living programs that can get your teen back on track before college or starting a career.

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