How to tell if your teen is an underage drinker


Teenagers use alcohol for many reasons such as boredom, as a coping mechanism against stress, anxiety and depression or because of low self-esteem and the need to fit in.

It is essential to know the reasons to be able to spot the behavioural patterns associated with them and to avoid underage drinking.

Figures from the 2012 University of South Africa (UNISA) Youth Research Unit Substance Abuse Survey Research indicate that around 15 percent of boys and eight percent of girls said they had their first drink before the age of 13.

Furthermore, in some provinces, (such as Gauteng) 86% of teenagers as young as 14 years old, are consuming alcohol on a regular basis.

"The UNISA research also shows that 49% of teenagers in the average South African home have at some stage experimented with alcohol.

"Yet other research we have done shows that the vast majority of parents believe their kids do not drink," said Rowan Dunne, Alcohol Policy Manager at SAB.

The South African Breweries (SAB) takes the problem of underage drinking seriously and as such, runs an outreach programme called You Decide.

Developed in partnership with the National Youth Development Agency, You Decide is a series of interactive initiatives aimed at helping teens realise how much better their future will be if they avoid underage drinking.

Its main component is a roadshow that has visited over 750 000 teenagers in over 1 700 schools since its launch in 2012.

In addition, more than 60 0000 adults have been reached in community workshops and alternative reach engagements, which are conducted to help empower adults with the tools to speak to the youth about the dangers of alcohol.

The You Decide programme has compiled a checklist of warning signs to be on the lookout for to prevent underage drinking.

Find the triggers:

Find out if there is anything which might tempt your teenager to want to use alcohol.

Are they trying to fit in, trying to reduce stress or feel relaxed? Make this an open discussion about the triggers they have identified or shared.

Once you determine why a child is tempted to drink, you can help them to fight those triggers by finding other ways to reduce stress, relax, or remove peer pressure.

Stress, anxiety and depression:

With matric exams having already started and other grades on the horizon, pay attention to your teenager for signs of stress, anxiety and depression.

Teenagers sometimes feel overwhelmed by life and may then turn to alcohol for solace if they do not have a healthy outlet for frustration, social anxiety, depression, anger and all the other emotions that are part and parcel of growing up.

Alcohol is a very powerful anxiolytic drug which reduces symptoms of stress and anxiety. After initial exposure to alcohol, teenagers start to believe it can ward off their painful feelings.

Furthermore, if their lives are not going well, they figure they have nothing to lose by using alcohol.

Teens with undiagnosed and unmanaged anxiety problems are at particular risk for abusing alcohol.

Alcohol works quickly. The initial effects feel really good, especially for teens who want to get rid of their bad feelings.

The problem is when the effects wear off, the negative feelings return even stronger.

Your teen regularly complains about being bored:

Teenagers who cannot tolerate being alone, have trouble keeping themselves occupied, and crave excitement, are prime candidates for using alcohol.

Your teen starts exhibiting signs of rebellion and anger:

Many teens choose to express their anger at their parents by doing something they have been told not to do.

Alcohol is the drug of choice for angry teenagers because it frees them to behave aggressively - this can be a concrete display of defiance and rejection of their parents.

They start mimicking their friends:

Listen to them and watch them to see if they have fallen into the "Everyone is doing it" trap.

Teenagers are astute observers and they see lots of people using alcohol. Furthermore movies, TV, and the internet glorify the use of alcohol.

Teens generally widely overstate the number of their peers who use alcohol. Some may feel "If I don't drink I will have no one to hang out with".

Most importantly, they see some teenagers who enjoy alcohol and they ask, "How can it be wrong?" Their natural curiosity also contributes to their experimentation with alcohol.

Your teen lacks confidence:

Some teenagers would do things under the influence of alcohol that they otherwise would never risk doing, for example, having to get drunk before going to a party or having to get drunk to strike up the courage to talk to someone.

Alcohol can become a crutch which teenagers rely on and they don't feel comfortable in a social setting without it.

Other warning signs:

Although the following signs may indicate a problem with alcohol or other drugs, some may also point to normal adolescent behaviour.

However, if you notice several of these signs at the same time, if they occur suddenly and if some of them are extreme in nature it could be a sign of alcohol use.

Mood swings: Flare-ups of temper, irritability and defensiveness.

School problems:

  • Poor attendance, low marks and/or recent disciplinary action.
  • Switching of friends: along with a reluctance to have you get to know the new friends.
  • A "don't care" attitude: sloppy appearance, a lack of involvement in former interests and general low energy.
  • Finding alcohol in your child's room or backpack or smelling alcohol on their breath.
  • Physical or mental problems: memory lapses, poor concentration, bloodshot eyes, lack of coordination or slurred speech.

"Teenagers may often be unsupervised during the school holidays, so it's important for parents and adults to monitor teenagers as best as they can over the period. 

"It is not okay for underage youths to drink alcohol under any circumstances," concludes Dunne.

The campaign has a toll-free line for youth to call, should they need any help: 0800 33 33 77.

Also read: Should schools be allowed to sell alcohol to adults at school functions?

Also read: Great debate: Should alcohol be served at children's parties?

Also read: 80% of high school kids drink alcohol

Also read: Would you let your teen drink with you?

Is your teen an underage drinker? What did you do to help with the problem? Share your thoughts and experiences by emailing and we may publish your story.

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