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How to Address a Teen DUI: Tips for Parents

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For parents, the first reaction to a teen DUI is typically a combination of shock, fear, and anger—accompanied by many unanswered questions. What are the legal penalties of an arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs? How will an underage DUI impact your child’s future? Why did they make such a poor decision? And perhaps scariest of all: What might have happened if your teen didn’t get pulled over?

However, instead of giving these emotions free rein or becoming a harsh disciplinarian, parents need to prioritize their teen’s welfare. Your child is also feeling uncomfortable emotions—most likely, guilt, regret, and self-judgment. They will need your support to navigate the psychological and practical ramifications of their actions.

Moreover, a teen DUI may be an indication that your child is struggling with a mental health condition. That’s why it’s essential to uncover the root causes of teenage drinking and driving, while also addressing the consequences.

Consequences of a Teen DUI

Depending on the state where the arrest took place, there are various legal consequences of an underage DUI, as well as penalties for related offenses, if applicable. These may include:

  • Having their license suspended or revoked
  • Paying fines
  • Mandated attendance at driving safety or alcohol/drug awareness classes
  • Jail time
  • Probation
  • Community service hours
  • Penalties for traffic violations while driving under the influence
  • Related charges, such as possession of alcohol by a minor, solicitation of alcohol (asking someone older to buy it for them), and/or possessing or using a fake ID.

In order to avoid the more serious DUI-under-18 consequences, hiring a lawyer may be the most prudent and effective approach. For teens with only a learner’s permit, a lawyer can be helpful in explaining what happens if you get a DUI at 16 or, in some states, younger than 16.

In addition to the criminal penalties of a teen DUI, there are other consequences that may result from adolescent drinking and driving. For example, a DUI conviction may limit a teen’s eligibility for scholarships or other types of grants. It may also negatively impact their employment opportunities, college admissions, and participation in teen sports and other extracurricular activities.

Statistics on Adolescent Drinking and Driving

 How many teens die from drunk driving? According to some estimates, about 3,000 teens annually—an average of eight per day—die from DUI crashes. Tragically, teen drunk driving statistics show that this behavior continues to be prevalent and to account for a high ratio of adolescent deaths. Here are the most recent statistics on teenage drinking and driving from the CDC and the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS).

  • Among US high school students who drive, 5.4 percent reported teen drunk driving at least once during the 30 days prior to the survey.
  • 7 percent of high school students rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol at least once in the 30 days before the survey.
  • 24 percent of drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 who were killed in a motor vehicle crashes had been drinking.
  • 60 percent of drivers aged 15–20 who were killed in motor vehicle crashes after drinking and driving were not wearing a seat belt.

After alcohol, marijuana is the second most common substance resulting in teen DUIs. But driving after using marijuana may be even more common than teen drinking and driving. According to the YRBS, 13 percent of high schoolers report driving after using marijuana. Research shows that close to half of teens who use marijuana drive after using the drug.

What Are the Underlying Causes of a Teen DUI?

 Teenage drinking and driving—or driving after using marijuana or another drug—is a life-threatening risky behavior. Some of the factors that may influence this dangerous decision are peer pressure, problems with impulse control, and a teen’s desire to test their boundaries, feel independent, or impress their friends.

However, a teen DUI is often a warning sign of an underlying mental health issue. Teenage alcohol and/or substance abuse is typically a symptom of untreated depression, anxiety, or trauma. Adolescents who are struggling with one or more of these issues may use substances as a way to self-medicate the emotional pain and distress they are experiencing. For some teens, risk-taking is another form of self-medication—a way to break through the numbness that sometimes accompanies depression or traumatic stress.

Furthermore, the impulsivity and poor executive functioning involved in teen drinking and driving may also be indications of a mental health condition. Impulse control issues and emotional dysregulation are common symptoms of bipolar disorder and other mood or personality disorders. One study with adults found that 45 percent of repeat DUI offenders had a major mental health disorder.

5 Steps to Address Teen Drinking and Driving

Dealing with the repercussions after your teen got a DUI can feel overwhelming. It can be helpful to view this event as an opportunity to support your teenager to change course. Don’t wait until the legal process around teen drunk driving is complete to start addressing the psychological and behavioral issues. Here’s how to move forward: 

  1. Talk to your teen about what happened. Remember that whatever difficult emotions you are experiencing, your teen is likely feeling just as bad or worse. Don’t let them suffer alone. Offer a safe, nonjudgmental space in which they can speak openly about the circumstances surrounding the DUI. Encourage them to share the emotions they have been experiencing before and since the incident as well.
  2. Set appropriate consequences. Your teen needs to understand the severity of what happened, but you don’t want to crush their spirit or their developing independence. The natural consequences of a DUI, such as having their license suspended, may be enough. Or you may need to set limits around their curfew and how often they check in with you about where they are and what they’re doing. (Learn more about setting rules and boundaries.)
  3. Rebuild trust in the parent-child relationship. While an underage DUI is a serious infraction, it does not mean you can never trust your child again. Furthermore, your child needs to be able to trust you, so they can reach out without fear if they find themselves in a risky situation. You may want to create an agreement that holds both of you accountable for maintaining honest and open communication.
  4. Make sure your teen receives a comprehensive mental health assessment. A screening with a mental health professional will provide your family with a possible diagnosis and help define a path forward. Your teen may be struggling with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or another mental health issue.
  5. Research treatment options. If your teen does receive a mental health diagnosis, treatment is essential. Depending on the severity of the diagnosis, weekly therapy, outpatient treatment, or residential treatment may be the best fit. Look for programs with published outcomes and third-party accreditation.

 At Newport Academy, we view substance abuse and other maladaptive behaviors as symptoms of mental health issues. And we work to address those underlying conditions rather than treating the behaviors alone.

Contact us today to find out more about our specialized treatment for adolescents. Ultimately, a teen DUI can turn out to be the beginning of a healing journey for your teen and your family.


 JAMA Netw Open. 2020; 3(12): e2030473. 

J Consult Clin Psychol. 2007 Oct; 75(5): 795-804.

2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey