The official drinking age in America is 21, but a good chunk of teenagers are still drinking. According to a study published in the January 2007 issue of Pediatrics magazine, almost half of 15,214 teenagers surveyed admitted to having had alcohol in the past month. And 64% of those who drank said they'd had five or more drinks in a row.

The study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), showed that teens aren't taking alcohol all that seriously. One out of three teens got in a car with someone who'd been drinking. And one out of 10 drove after drinking themselves. That is worrying in and of itself. But driving aside, high school students who binge drink are five times more likely to be sexually active than their non-drinking peers, 18 times more likely to smoke, and four times more likely to get into a fist fight. They also do worse in school and are more likely to attempt suicide.

"Contrary to popular belief, parents remain the greatest influence over their children's behavior," says Richard Gallagher, PhD, director of the Parenting Institute and the Thriving Teens Project at the NYU Child Study Center. To be sure, peer pressure, a lack of self-confidence, and many other factors contribute to teen drinking. But parents can help their kids fight the inclination, Gallagher says. He offers these tips:

  1. Clearly state what actions you expect your teen to take when confronted with substance use. Teens who know what their parents expect from them are much less likely to use drugs and alcohol.
  2. When you're out with your children and you see people drinking or smoking, talk about it. Don't let alcohol and tobacco become the elephant in the room. Speak up. "Children need to have controlled exposure to learn the rules of acceptable use," Gallagher says.
  3. Help your teen find fun things to do in places that are substance-free. Then, keep track of where, with whom, and what they're doing after school and during other free times.
  4. Limit the access your children have to substances. Trust is a wonderful thing. But studies show that kids often experiment with substances that are easily available. Teens report that they sneak alcohol from home stocks, take cigarettes from relatives, and obtain marijuana from people they know well.
  5. Let them know the dangers that are associated with alcohol and drug abuse. "Although teens are not highly influenced by such information, some discussion of negative consequences has some impact on the decisions they make," Gallagher says. "Especially emphasize how alcohol clouds one's judgment and makes one more likely to be harmed in other ways."