Teen Binge Drinking – What You Need To Know

binge drinking

Parents of teens have a lot to worry about when it comes to raising them. Their increasing independence, orientation toward their peer group, and their often tight-lipped communication can make it hard for parents, especially for parents of teen boys, who are notoriously less verbal.

It can be particularly challenging to stay abreast of all they are doing, who they are spending time with, and what they are exposed to. But just because they don’t always tell us what’s going on doesn’t mean they aren’t dealing with a lot. One of the most common things kids seem to be exposed to on a regular basis is teen binge drinking.

Whether it’s with the families I work with, or my own family and friends, teen drinking is an issue confronting our kids on a regular basis. Knowing how to empower teens to make responsible decisions about alcohol is no easy task.

Having had more than a few recent conversations about the long-term effects of teen binge drinking, and what exactly binge drinking is, I thought it would be helpful to summarize what you need to know.


Defining Binge Drinking

First a question. Without reading ahead, if I asked you what teen binge drinking was, what would you say? How many drinks in how much time would you define as binge drinking? And how often?

I will confess I was surprised at the definition researchers use for teen binge drinking:

  • For those ages 9 to 13, 3 or more drinks within a 2-hour period;
  • for those ages 14 to 15, with 4 or more drinks for boys and 3 or more drinks for girls;
  • and for those ages 16 to 17, with 5 or more drinks for boys and 4 or more drinks for girls.

To remind, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at NIH defines a standard drink as:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer, which is usually about 5% alcohol
  • 5 ounces of wine, which is typically about 12% alcohol
  • 5 ounces of distilled spirits, which is about 40% alcohol

According the 2015 National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health, the risk of binge drinking statistically increases as teens age, with boys being more at risk for binge drinking than girls. Here are some useful graphs depicting percentage of teen alcohol use and binge drinking by age group according to these data.


So what do parents need to know about the long-term effects of binge drinking?


Understand the science about the effects of teen binge drinking:









Understand why your teen might be more vulnerable than you may think

Teen binge drinking and its long-term effects is scary for parents, as well as professionals. Teen drinking is so normalized that it becomes increasingly hard for kids to resist it all together.  Meaning, it takes a great deal of courage and social capital to say no, even if an average teen could agree it’s dangerous.

There aren’t many teenagers out there who can do so without unwanted social consequences. Or at least what they FEAR are social consequences. Peer approval and inclusion are so central to adolescent development that it is hard to overstate the importance of a teen’s social culture, and their desire to fit in.

When we think about the pressure related to a teen’s peer group to drink, somehow the term “peer pressure” doesn’t quite resonate. It’s not that teens are only encouraging other teens to do what they are doing. It’s more about wanting to be included, and an understandable fear of being excluded or left out. With their social relationships being so paramount to their wellbeing and development, fitting in, and taking risks to do so, is what kids battle when it comes to making good decisions.

Anxiety can also complicate a teen’s need for approval and decision-making.


Find out more from your teen about what’s going on in their peer group. 

Talk to them. Talking is so important, that the Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has launched a prevention campaign called, Talk. They hear you, that includes a variety of resources including an App to help.

Take opportunities (whenever you have them) or find windows of time together to ask them about what’s going on. Start conversations about what kids are doing in their peer group, and listen.

Get a lay of the landscape. See where there is worry for them, where there is concern for you, find out what they have under control.

Make sure your teen knows  you care most about them, and want to know the truth even if it isn’t easy to talk about. Ask them what they’re proud of, and what worries them. Offer positive reinforcement for good decisions and judgement, and support where you hear them worried.

Maintaining an ongoing discussion about what’s going on in their friend group allows you to keep talking about substances. Recognize that every social occasion – even the most low key – can be a new opportunity to be confronted with substances and a desire to fit in.

Keep listening about how they’re feeling, and what’s happening in their lives, even if it’s late at night when they feel like talking (when you can). Go back to conversations if they are unfinished.


Fill in knowledge gaps with facts and science

After you’ve listened, and established communication, it’s safe to find your teaching moments and begin the quest to educate. As much as they may think they know, chances are pretty good some of their facts aren’t quite straight and much of their information relies on what they’ve been told, and not always what is accurate.

Here are some ideas:

  • Review alcohol servings

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at NIH, a standard drink is:

    • 12 ounces of regular beer, which is usually about 5% alcohol
    • 5 ounces of wine, which is typically about 12% alcohol
    • 5 ounces of distilled spirits, which is about 40% alcohol

A drink is NOT a “swig” out of a bottle, an oversized can of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, or an empty water bottle filled with vodka. Many kids are surprised to learn how small 1.5 ounces is.


  • Define binge drinking and educate about its short- and long-term brain impact. 

Help kids understand their brain is under massive development in adolescence such that the choices they make about alcohol use can have lasting, and life-long consequences. Review the bullets above, and share with your teen the highlights. If they aren’t convinced, click through to the science and read with them the findings. Most are from government funded (NIH) longitudinal studies, the reading of which could be empowering for both you and your teen.

Make sure to highlight the narrow definition of binge drinking, and even model for kids how little alcohol 3-4 drinks may be, especially if teens are “pregaming” with hard alcohol in no standard containers that don’t lend to measuring (ie, vodka in water bottles poured liberally into a soft drink, or simply “swigged”) A shot glass or measuring cup of water can be a powerful way to show them how little alcohol it can take to exceed the binge drinking standard.

Review with your teen the binge drinking definition according to their age and sex:

    • For those ages 9 to 13, 3 or more drinks within a 2-hour period
    • For those ages 14 to 15, 4 or more drinks for boys and 3 or more drinks for girls within a 2-hour period
    • For those ages 16 to 17, 5 or more drinks for boys and 4 or more drinks for girls within a 2-hour period


  • Consider showing your teen what happens as alcohol influences their brain

One of the most relatable videos I’ve seen on this subject is a video by neuroscientist Shannon Odell.

In it, she discusses (and demonstrates) the effects of alcohol on the brain as blood alcohol levels rise. Known as the “drunk neuroscientist,” this viral YouTube video answers some key questions about alcohol in a way that isn’t preachy or lecturing. It can be funny, but also scary. Take a look, and consider watching with your teen to help educate how alcohol influences the brain.

At minute 2:56, Odell crosses the binge drinking threshold, and her intoxication is obvious. While the tone of the video is somewhat comedic with this neuroscientist getting obviously drunk, the increasing impact of alcohol is unmistakable as she slurs her words, has trouble standing up straight, and can’t easily remember her train of thought. This can be an opportunity to educate your teen about the signs of intoxication, and dispel any myths or misinformation they could be harboring. At every level of intoxication, Odell describes what is happening in the brain in a way that teens might find more engaging than rattling off facts.


Maintain open lines of communication

Above all else, like with all things sensitive, the most important thing is to continue the conversation. Whatever it takes, and however repetitive it may feel, our kids need our leadership and verbal support. We need to keep the conversation going, and the best way to do this it to keep talking.

Regularly ask your teen about what s/he’s doing, what his/her friends are up to, and how s/he is feeling. Ask about alcohol, drugs, and other challenging choices your teen is facing, and what’s around him or her.

If your teen is reticent to talk to you about their choices, ask them about their friends. Events and scenarios that happen in your teen’s friend group allow opportunities to talk about these subjects in a way that can feel less direct, and threatening to your teen.

  • Aim to understand more about what their friends are doing, how many are experimenting with alcohol and other drugs, and how normative alcohol is in their peer group (or peer groups to which they may aspire).
  • If their friends are drinking, how much alcohol are they using? Do they get drunk? What does your teen think about it – is it funny, cool, scary?
  • What’s it like for your teen to be around peers who are drinking or talking about drinking? Is your teen going along with it, or if they aren’t, how is that feeling for them?  If your teen denies alcohol use, does their description of how they avoid alcohol sound believable?

Dealing with alcohol, drugs, and sex are some of the more profound challenges our teens face on an ongoing basis, and most parents don’t feel equipped to talk to their kids about any of it. Or even know quite how to handle it. Many of us didn’t have parents who spoke openly about these subjects and it’s easy to feel ill equipped to take these subjects on.

The good news is that you don’t have to be perfect, or even close to it.

What our kids need most is to know we care, are showing sincere love and concern, are open to listening and supporting them no matter what, and are willing to set limits for them when they can’t. When it comes to binge drinking, our kids need our guidance to help them face the many complicated challenges and decisions about substance use.

Use this information as an invitation to stay involved, and keep talking to your teen. If you do nothing other than commit to keeping the topic of alcohol and drugs a focus of ongoing conversation, you have made a powerful impact on your teen and the decisions s/he is making about substances now, and throughout his/her life.

Being curious, compassionate, and courageous in supporting our teens are some of the most empowering gifts we can give them as parents. May this journey bring closeness and strength.


Looking for more help with the anxiety of parenting? Check out my book, Hack Your Anxiety, sign-up for my free mini-ecourse to help you hack anxiety’s most common challenges, or subscribe to my newsletter.

Photo by Ibrahim Boran on Unsplash

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD