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Is my middle-schooler hitting the bottle?

Mom is concerned after her young son tells her about alcohol use at school. Dr. Ruth Peters has tips on detection and prevention.

Q: When I was picking my son up from middle school the other day, he told me that another boy in one of his classes had come to school drunk that morning. I find it very hard to believe that kids this young are drinking, especially before school!

Could this really be true? And what can I do to make sure that my son doesn't get into this behavior?

A: Sad to say, but I'm seeing kids using alcohol at increasingly younger ages and with more frequency than ever before. But where are they getting the liquor?

The most common scenarios seem to be getting into the liquor cabinet when Mom and Dad are at work or away for the evening and/or arranging for older friends, sibs or acquaintances to buy alcohol. Then the sneaky kids party when there is little or no parental supervision. Usually they hit the bottle after school, but I’ve been hearing more frequently about youngsters drinking while walking to the bus stop or grabbing a swig from the flask in the locker before classes begin. Some schools are beginning to enforce random locker checks to deter this behavior.

And, yes, these include middle school-aged kids, from 11 to 14. The problem is more prevalent among high-schoolers, but it's of significant concern when middle-schoolers become involved.

How do you know if your child is using alcohol?  Well, first, consider who your individual kid is.  Is he trustworthy, responsible with household chores and homework?  Does he wake up in a decent (although probably sleepy) mood, but seems organized and ready for school on time? When he comes home from visiting with his buddies does he spend some time talking with you, or does he try to escape to his bedroom and avoid conversation? Or, on the other hand, is his behavior erratic and moody, does he show slurring of speech or sleepiness when he’s usually active during that part of the day?  What do his teachers have to say — does he participate as usual in class or has he begun to withdraw or put his head down on the desk during lessons?  Does he turn in his homework and class work?  Is he giggly, impulsive or moody in school?

If your child is exhibiting responsible, communicative behavior and there hasn’t been a recent change in mood, demeanor or school achievement and participation then most likely he or she is not involved in alcohol use.  Remember, most kids at the middle school level are not using substances, so please don’t jump the gun and be accusatory just because some children are involved in this activity.

There’s nothing wrong, though, with directly asking your child if he or she has ever had a drink or used pot — in fact you should be asking those types of questions as part of your quest to keep in touch with your child’s world. Kids appreciate your concern, and most will not be insulted by your asking.   Try not to be accusatory — keep it as an inquiry.

If your child does admit to having tried alcohol once, perhaps at a friend’s house, please don’t overreact, especially if he or she volunteers this information and notes that it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Praise the honesty and openness, but have a short chat about the dangers of drinking, and how it is an activity that he or she is not allowed to engage in, especially at this age.

However, if you have “that feeling” that your child is using alcohol and he or she denies it, then you must do what you can to prevent further usage.

The best prevention is to keep liquor out of your house (even locked liquor cabinets can be compromised).  Keep it at the grandparents or a friend’s house, or if you must store liquor at home be sure that you have the best lock on the market for your cabinet.  And, keep an eye on the volume of the liquor. (Kids have been known to water it down to keep the level looking accurate, but most don’t bother.)  You may want to draw a thin line on the label to note where the alcohol level should be. But, to avoid this stealth activity, why not just keep it out of the house until you need it for a party or a get-together?  If you frequently drink wine or beer yourself and it’s kept in the refrigerator, keep a close eye on the volume level and let the kids know that it’s off-limits to them and their friends.

Finally, remember that supervised kids get into much less mischief — it’s difficult to drink alcohol if Mom or Dad is able to drop Junior off at school and if he’s well supervised (parent, neighbor, and recreation center) after school.

If ever you feel that your child is using alcohol, one of the best ways to check is of course, the “smell test”. Most moms and dads can smell the breath of a child and tell instantly if they’ve been into something forbidden. Sneaky kids will try mouthwash, gum or mints, but often the smell will linger.

Also, I suggest using a saliva screening test. Easy to use and reasonably accurate, this is a small chemically treated strip that is placed in the child's mouth for just a few minutes. It can tell you if the child has had more than one beer or more than one ounce of liquor. The reactive pad changes color based upon your youngster’s alcohol usage and it is quick proof that he's been into something. Just have him or her refrain from eating or drinking anything for fifteen minutes, insert the pad into the mouth, and within a few minutes it will change colors to a dark green or blue, depending upon the concentration of the alcohol. (These may be ordered from Parents Alert, Inc. at Or, you may be able to purchase test strips at your local convenience or liquor store.

If alcohol usage has been detected in a middle or high school age youngster I make it a point in my practice to help parents aggressively tackle this problem. Rather than just reasoning with kids (lecturing, nagging), I find that most children respond best to behavior-management techniques. In other words, give them negative consequences for drinking. These include lowering curfews, taking away privileges, prohibiting relationships with friends whom you suspect have become drinking buddies or providers of alcohol, and perhaps speaking with the school guidance counselor about the problem. You may find it beneficial to change your child’s school in order to remove him or her from the problematic peer group. 

Most of the time, just finding out about the problem and giving consequences will cure it, as the child will not like to be grounded for the remainder of his adolescent career! If the problem persists, seek guidance from your pediatrician or therapy with a counselor who specializes in substance use and abuse.

Dr. Peters’ Bottom Line: Alcohol use, especially at the middle school and high school levels, is a very serious problem and should never be overlooked. Your child needs to know that you are going to be watching for this behavior and that definite negative consequences, boundaries and life changes will occur if he or she continues to participate in this activity.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.