Many parents have faced it: their teen-ager comes home late with red-rimmed eyes and alcohol on the breath. Now, warn many observers, increasing numbers of junior high and elementary school students are also experimenting with alcohol.
''Alcohol is as dangerous as any other drug, and the sad thing is it's freely available to kids,'' says Ron Hopkins, director of psychological services for Drug Abuse Programs of America (DAPA) based in Houston. From 1977 to 1979, children treated in DAPA programs usually began using alcohol and other drugs at ages 12 or 13. From 1981 to 1983, the average age for onset of use was 81/2 to 9 years old.
Alcohol is linked to falling grades and school dropout rates, dissension among family members, and loss of life from car accidents or suicide. Steady drinking by a teen, say experts, can lead to alcoholism and addiction within three to six months.
''As a society we really have to face this because it is costing us much too much. We are all in a position to respond to the problem,'' says Roberta Meyer, an alcohol educator and counselor in San Francisco.
According to many observers, alcohol is the drug used most often by teen-agers in this country. Many adolescents who drink mix alcohol with other drugs. Peer pressure, rebellion against parents, an unstable family life, media advertising, boredom, and parents' own use of alcohol are often cited as factors that may lead to drinking.
It is difficult to verify the extent of teen-agers' use of alcohol, but the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare estimates 3.3 million young people are ''problem'' drinkers.
Part of the solution to the problem can begin at home.
''Unfortunately, there is some indifference among parents,'' says Steve Glenn , instructional coordinator for the drug and alcohol prevention curriculum for the Deer Park Independent School District southeast of Houston. ''Kids are looking for leadership and we're simply not giving it to them.''
He and other experts in the field are particularly concerned about the effects of advertising on youngsters. ''I think the media has a total lack of public conscience in the way it presents alcohol,'' he says. ''Through advertising, young people associate alcohol with good times, handsome boys, and good-looking girls. Unfortunately, advertising works and they believe it,'' he says.
In speaking to parent groups, Mr. Glenn advises them to help their children make decisions about using chemical substances before they are under pressure to experiment. This means introducing the subject to youngsters early on.
''When parents begin telling children, 'Don't talk to strangers' or 'Don't take candy from strangers,' it's a good time to alert them not to accept alcohol or drugs either,'' says Mr. Glenn, who has two teen-age children. When children reach the fourth or fifth grade, he says, they are ready for more specific information.
According to Dr. Jason Baron, founder of DAPA, educational material about drugs and alcohol should be presented in a friendly, nonaccusatory atmosphere.
In his book, ''Kids and Drugs: A Parent's Handbook of Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment'' (Perigee Books, Putnam Publishing Group, New York, 1983), he says such discussions with children should center on the effects of drugs on the child's peer group, the strength of peer pressure pushing people into drugs, and the difficulties this causes in school and relationships with parents and friends. Parents should let the child know they are always available to listen, understand, and guide him or her through any troubled times.
In recent years parent groups have been organized across the country to help decrease current and future drug and alcohol use among children in the community.
As discussed in ''Kids and Drugs,'' parent groups in some neighborhoods have found a unified code of behavior for their children can be effective in lessening and even eradicating the use of drugs and alcohol. Rules may vary according to the group, but the members agree to enforce mutual guidelines for their children regarding curfews, parties, and the total prohibition of drugs and alcohol.
Dr. Baron has found organized parent groups can also exercise clout to influence local television programming and advertising which condones or glamorizes the use of alcohol. Writing letters to local stations and national networks, appearing on local talk shows, and writing letters to local papers can all make an impact.
Schools, often the center of drug activity, are also exploring solutions. Many have initiated drug and alcohol education programs beginning in the elementary grades.
A few years ago Maine began a statewide ''Project Graduation'' in which teachers, parents, and other community members sponsor an organized activity, such as an all-night boat cruise, a pool party, or special dance for seniors on graduation night. Schools in other states have also picked up the idea. In Maine , ''Project Graduation'' has reduced graduation-night deaths from 13 fatalities in 1979 to none in 1983.
Cony High School in Augusta, Maine, holds an all-night dance with breakfast served early in the morning. Community members donate food and door prizes. Last year parents raised $7,000 to pay for the party.
''We have 75 to 80 percent of the senior class attending with their guests,'' says principal Robert Whytock. ''Teens think they have to drink to have a good time. We're proving to them they can be warm, spend a safe night with their friends, remember the whole thing, and still have fun.''