Health & Fitness

Dr. Wood: Parents must step up to curb tragedies that can result from underage drinking

Spring break is right around the corner, and teens — like all of us — are ready to enjoy some time relaxing and visiting with friends. Whether those same teens also use their time off to drink alcohol isn’t something that should be left to chance. Stopping underage drinking is a major priority in Thurston County, and parents, friends, and family can help.

According to the 2018 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey, 29 percent of Thurston County’s high school seniors drank alcohol in the past month. And 17 percent of county 10th graders did the same.

What is also concerning is that 14 percent of the county’s 12th graders binge drink, which is drinking five or more drinks in a row. Of the county 12th graders who drink alcohol, many of them get alcohol from friends (43 percent) or at a party (27 percent) — and 10 percent got alcohol from home without their parent’s permission.

Why is underage drinking such a concern? Alcohol not only affects teens’ development, it also impacts behavior — and can, unfortunately, result in tragedy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention add more concerns to the list. Underage drinking can result in a wide variety of problems including:

  • Higher risk of alcohol dependence.

  • Changes in brain development that may have life-long effects.

  • Alcohol-related injury or death.

  • Unwanted, unplanned, and unprotected sexual activity.

  • Decreased school attendance and achievement.

  • Higher risk for both suicide and homicide.

  • Higher risk for abuse of other drugs.

In 2018, 1 in 5 Thurston County 10th and 12th graders rode in a car with a driver who had been drinking. Nearly 1 in 10 12th graders drove after they had been drinking. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has some great advice for how to help families navigate the subject of underage drinking, and keep their teens making healthy choices about alcohol:

  1. Seek professional help from a physician or addiction counselor if you or your partner struggles with alcohol abuse. You can find treatment options through the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator, a service of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. If you suspect your teen already has a serious drinking problem, get them help right away. Remember that you’re not alone, and there are support systems and professionals who can help. Start with the Partnership for Drug Free Kids.
  2. Do not allow teens to drink in the home. Though some people advocate letting adolescents drink at home so they can learn to consume alcohol responsibly, available research indicates that doing so increases the risks of underage drinking.
  3. If you choose to drink, model responsible alcohol attitudes and consumption. Limit how much, how often, and where you drink. Do not drink in high-risk situations such as when driving, operating a boat, or operating machinery.
  4. Keep communication open. Be interested in your teen’s life, and be open to information he or she may share. Not only will this make it easier to talk about difficult issues regarding alcohol and other topics, but it also will give you information about where your teen may be facing pressure or temptation to use alcohol.
  5. Set clear, specific rules about alcohol use, and do so early. Teens who have well-defined, alcohol-specific rules are less likely to start drinking. Those who start later are likely to drink less.
  6. Address drinking and driving. Be clear that teens should never drive with any alcohol in their system or ride with someone who has been drinking. Talk out a clear plan for what to do if your teen is in a situation that could involve alcohol and driving. This could include an agreement to call you for help at any time, with no questions asked at the time (though consequences would be in place after the immediate danger has passed), or to use an app for a taxi or other ride home.
  7. Intervene if you suspect that teens are using alcohol. Talk to teens right away and work with them (and other parents) to prevent further underage alcohol use. Ask teens for their side of the story directly, describing the reasons for your concern. Avoid being judgmental, but share your perspective and expectations.
  8. Set appropriate consequences if your teen has used alcohol. Use it as an opportunity to help him or her learn from mistakes. What should happen the next time, or what will you do to reduce your teens opportunity to get alcohol?

Check out Start Talking Now.

Underage drinking is a problem that affects our whole community, and which can have tragic results. Taking a little time to establish clear guidelines can make a big difference.

Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501,, or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.