My Teen Is Addicted to Caffeine—How Do I Help Her Curb the Habit?

Parents Ask Your Mom columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., offers advice on how to set boundaries when it comes to kids and caffeine consumption.

How do I help curb my teen's caffeine habit?

My 13-year-old and her friends love to grab a coffee at the local Starbucks, where all the kids hang out. But this habit is becoming expensive, and I also worry about what her coffee consumption (she's a frap fan!) is doing to her still growing body and brain. How do I set limits here without ruining her fun?
-Highly Caffeinated

Are our daughters friends? This describes my life, and my worries. My almost 13-year-old has claimed a love for coffee even beyond her Starbucks social life, so I have taken on the caffeine consumption concern as well. I didn’t drink coffee until graduate school, so it’s yet another instance of feeling like there’s no way my own child shares my DNA! I also run frugal, so her Caramel Macchiato habit has brought up money talks. Fortunately, we have found ways for my daughter to keep her social life without spending all of her parents’ disposable income, and to have peace of mind that it won’t ruin her body and brain.

The Bucks in Starbucks

I highly recommend your daughter has a way to have her own money, so she can decide how much she uses it for the Frappuccinos. My daughter has a small weekly allowance that could afford her one yummy, frothy Starbucks drink per week and nothing more. Since she also likes eating out with friends and new clothes whenever her style changes, her more independent social life has also inspired working for her own money. She has networked with neighbors on our block to procure babysitting and pet-sitting jobs that have been much more lucrative than our little allowance. 

This has had so many positive effects beyond just having more money. First of all, she doesn’t ask us for money for the first time in her life. She pays attention to how much she has and makes spending decisions based on that – you know, budgeting! Some parents might think their kids would resent their parents not just giving them $10 every time they want to hang with their friends, but I have seen my daughter feel a sense of control that empowers her. Recently, she practically floated with pride after saving up money for long-coveted Airpods. 

Not only does having her own money remove one more potential argument in life with a teen (“You’re going to Starbucks with your friends again? I just gave you money two days ago!”), but she gets to practice the art of budgeting. Which may mean she orders a tall Starbucks cup of ice-filled water some days, not because you strongly suggested it, but because of her own choice.    

Is Coffee Safe for Kids?

I want to clearly state that I am not an expert on the health effects of caffeine, but I can share what I discovered from my own research. First, it seems that the idea that drinking coffee stunts growth is a myth. However, there are other potential risks and the official medical stance is that there is no safe amount of caffeine for kids under 12 due to their body’s heightened sensitivity to the effects of caffeine. For teens, no more than 100 mg of caffeine daily is recommended, which equals one cup of coffee (and some cups of coffee contain well above this average). I looked it up and Frappuccinos range from 85-115 mg of caffeine, depending on the size. 

However, our kids are likely consuming caffeine in other forms if they are drinking caffeinated sodas or eating chocolate, for example. Even some gum and mints now have caffeine! So, a Frappuccino may be innocent on its own but push a teen over the edge if combined with other caffeine sources. (Note: energy drinks are especially popular and particularly risky!) It’s good to keep in mind that caffeine can affect sleep, cause anxious feelings, and as most of us adults know all too well, it can be addictive. 

Assess Your Child's Risk

Just like many health issues, the risk of your 13-year-old’s Frappuccino habit depends a lot on personal factors. How often is she drinking a frap, and how does it affect her? In our family, we insist on decaf, which our daughter doesn’t mind because she’s not really going for the Grande caramel macchiato for its caffeine content. Yes, decaffeinated coffee has small amounts of caffeine, but we have watched closely, and her a few times week habit doesn’t seem to make any difference in her sleep or behavior.  

For your daughter, take stock of her regular intake of caffeine from sources that might not be on your radar as part of her daily consumption. Observe her on days she has her Starbucks treat to see if there’s a pattern of concern, such as problems going to sleep or feeling more anxious. (Even better if she can tune into these changes for her own self-awareness.)

Steps to Moderation

Thinking of both the money and health impacts of your daughter’s Starbucks social life, approaching her in a way that balances her social needs with safe limits is practice for more of this in her adolescent future! Here are a few tips:

  • Make sure she is informed about caffeine and its effects. If she’s likely to roll her eyes at your attempts to deliver useful information, encourage her to look it up herself. You may want to double-check that she access reputable sources, so follow-up with her about what she finds. 
  • Collaborate with her on how to have more limits, both with her budget and her caffeine consumption. What are her ideas for reasonable maximum amounts? Is there a less expensive, zero-caffeine option that she could opt for some of the time? You communicate the need for limits, and she works with you to define those limits. 
  • She may not admit that her friends’ parents also want them to cut down on the coffee life, but suggesting that this might be the case could inspire some conversation in the friend group about alternative hangouts. If I know anything about this age group, it’s that their obsessions can change quickly!

The Bottom Line

It’s fair and healthy to set limits in a way that your daughter can still enjoy her social life. You can do this through a combination of your own expectations to not buy a Frappuccino every day, and through encouraging her to have her own ideas and solutions. In the process, your young teen can practice increasing self-awareness, becoming informed about risks, and problem-solving. Finding that balance between limits and fun sets the stage for the ongoing adolescent adventure of figuring out moderation, with a Frappuccino on the side.

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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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