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Preventing Underage Drinking: Strategies for Professionals and Parents

Publication Date: Apr 23, 2019

Preventing Underage Drinking: Strategies for Professionals and Parents

Fred Dyer, Ph.D., CADC 

April is designated as Alcohol Awareness Month, with a special focus on preventing underage drinking. The legal drinking age is 21 and this month is another opportunity to remind us that underage drinking is a public health issue that impacts not only adolescent health and development, but also academic performance, family relationships, peer relationships, and the community as a whole.

Adolescent risks for underage drinking 

Alcohol Awareness Post NCADD Facing Addiction Before addressing prevention strategies it is necessary to briefly review adolescent risks for underage drinking. One theory stresses the need for excitement, fun and novel intense sensations, which overrides the potential dangers in a particular activity (Arnett & Balle-Jensen 1993). Another theory stresses that many of these risky behaviors occur in a group context and involve peer acceptance and status in the group (Jessor 1991). The third theory emphasizes that adolescent risk taking, including underage drinking, is a form of modeling and romanticizing adult behavior (Gibbons & Gerrad 1995). In considering  these theories  it should be kept in mind that all teenagers  are not alike and that they may have different reasons for engaging in some risky behaviors (Jaffe 1998). Hawkins, Cantelano & Miller (1992) provide a useful and important listing of factors that place adolescents at risk for early alcohol and drug use. A partial list of risk factors includes family positive attitude towards adolescent alcohol and drug use, easy access to alcohol and drugs at home and in the community, low bonding to family, family conflict, academic failure, and association with drug using peers.

The results of underage drinking can be devastating in both the short and long term. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action report To Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking explains that alcohol is a major cause of death from injuries among young people, increases the risk of carrying out, or being a victim of, a physical or sexual assault, plays a role in risky sexual activity, and can harm the growing brain, especially teens who drink a lot. 

So given all we know about the dangers, problems and challenges of underage drinking, why would an adolescent engage in such high risk behavior? Some people can be perplexed by this. As adults and professionals it’s important to remember the developmental construct of "perspective taking:” remembering when you were an adolescent and had the same struggles adolescents are having today—curiosity, stress, thrill-seeking behavior, peer pressure—which can all lead to early alcohol use. 

As professionals working with adolescents and their families in schools and communities, we must remember that the way to help an adolescent is to help the family and to be aware of the  influences of the peer group. Adolescents tend to spend more time with peers than with their families, and may pay greater attention to what they see and hear about alcohol from peers. This may lead to a greater desire to take risks.

Three strategies to address underage drinking 

Strategies prevention specialists can utilize in schools and communities to address underage drinking include: 

One, engage in interactive educational sessions that include techniques such as role playing alcohol refusal skills. Facilitate small group discussions about the harmful effects of early alcohol use and binge drinking. It is important to address the subject multiple times throughout the years, especially in after-school extracurricular activities.

Alcohol Awareness Post Two, engage the family. Family prevention strategies include strengthening family bonds, monitoring children's activities during adolescence, and providing consistent discipline and rule-making. Parents must be mindful of what behaviors they are modeling with their own alcohol and drug use behavior.

Three, offer alcohol-free alternatives. Provide activities that help adolescents enjoy their adolescence without drinking. Incorporate life-skills development exercises and positive youth development approaches. Facilitating adolescent involvement in pro-social, non-drinking events/activities can also help. Be sure to get input from adolescents when planning after school activities. 

These strategies and others to reduce underage drinking take time and energy, but the adolescents and families we serve are worth the effort. 


Arnett, J., & Balle‐Jensen, L. (1993). Cultural bases of risk behavior: Danish adolescents. Child development64(6), 1842-1855.

Gibbons, F. X., & Gerrard, M. (1995). Predicting young adults' health risk behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology69(3), 505.

Hawkins, J. D., Catalano, R. F., & Miller, J. Y. (1992). Risk and protective factors for alcohol and other drug problems in adolescence and early adulthood: implications for substance abuse prevention. Psychological bulletin112(1), 64.

Jaffe,M.L.,(1998). Adolescence. New York: Wiley

Jessor, R. (1991). Risk behavior in adolescence: a psychosocial framework for understanding and action. Journal of adolescent Health.

About the Author

Fred Dyer photo Fred Dyer, Ph.D., CADC, is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer, author, and consultant who services juvenile justice detention/residential programs, child welfare, foster care agencies, substance use and mental health facilities, and adolescent treatment agencies. Dr. Dyer has published more that 150 articles and also consults throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. 

Dr. Dyer is the founder and Executive Director of Hope Recovery Center, an organization addressing substance use among emerging adults. Dr. Dyer can be reached at