Adolescent Alcohol Use vs. Adolescent Alcohol Abuse

In the past 30 days, approximately 1/3 of high school students used some alcohol. For some of them, it might have been a single drink, perhaps consumed out of curiosity. For others, it might have been regular binge drinking. For the majority, it was likely somewhere in between. As the parent of a teenager and a former teenager yourself, you probably already know that most teens and young adults will try alcohol at some point before they turn 21. When does curiosity and experimentation cross the line into adolescent alcohol abuse and addiction? What can you do to discourage underage drinking in your own teenager? What should you do if you suspect that your teen has an adolescent alcohol abuse problem? Read on for some tips and information.


Who Is Drinking and How Much?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 33 percent of 15-year-olds and 60 percent of 18-year-olds have had at least one drink. Also, although it’s illegal, young people aged 12-20 drink 11 percent of all of the alcohol consumed in the USA. Many do so by binge-drinking, which is drinking four or five (depending on sex) drinks within the span of a few hours. Boys and girls are equally likely to drink, but boys are more likely to binge-drink.


What are the Dangers of Underage Drinking?

Young bodies and minds are not equipped to deal with alcohol. Not only are there physical dangers from the alcohol itself, such as liver damage and brain impairments, but because teens do not yet know how to handle alcohol properly, there are also often dangers from their behaviors while under the influence.


For example, sexual assault is more likely when one or more of the parties is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The risk of a car accident is much higher when the driver has been drinking. Teens might not know their own limits and might think they are okay to drink after one or two beers, when in fact they are impaired. They might also be more likely to drown, fall, or commit suicide while impaired by alcohol.


What are the Signs of Adolescent Alcohol Abuse?

Not every teen who tries alcohol out of curiosity is going to go on to abuse the substance. On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that a teen who tries a few drinks will not go on to become an alcoholic. As a parent, it’s important to be aware of the signs of adolescent alcohol abuse.

Physical Signs

  • smells like alcohol
  • flushed skin
  • reddened eyes
  • slurred speech
  • issues sleeping

Behavioral Signs

  • grades slipping dramatically
  • change of friend groups
  • loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • more argumentative than usual
  • lack of hygiene
  • less care for their appearance
  • signs of depression or anxiety.


What Can Parents Do?

Here are a few steps that you can take as a parent to help prevent your child from adolescent alcohol abuse.

  1. Be the example – One important step you can take to curb underage and binge drinking is to drink responsibly yourself, if you choose to partake. Your teen is watching you, even if it doesn’t seem that way. So if you drink socially in places where your adolescent can watch you or with dinner, have just one or two drinks, then switch to water, iced tea, or something else.
  2. Make the message clear – Let your teen know how you feel about underage drinking. Don’t be inconsistent by allowing them to drink at home while telling them not to drink while out with friends. Send a clear message by showing them that you do not support teenage drinking.
  3. Be an involved parent – Know where your kids are and who they are with. Even though your teen has an adult-sized body, they still need you to set limits and boundaries and to enforce consequences when those boundaries are breached.
  4. Encourage your child to join extracurricular activities – Kids who are involved in something they’re passionate about might be less likely to turn to drugs or alcohol to occupy their time. This could be something such as sports or theater.
  5. Be approachable – Keeping the lines of communication between you and your teen open is important. If your teen feels that they can approach you about alcohol and similar subjects without getting in trouble, then they will come to you when they need advice and you will be able to guide them.


Special Considerations

There are a couple of special considerations that you should keep in mind. First, teens who have anxiety, depression, PTSD, or other types of mental health conditions can be more susceptible to alcoholism. One reason is that they may try to self-medicate when they are not feeling well. If your teen has any of these conditions, it’s important to seek help from a professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, and even medications might be warranted.

Also, if alcoholism or other addictions run in your family, it’s important that your teenager is aware of it. Susceptibility to addiction can be hereditary in some cases, so teens with a strong family history of substance abuse need to understand that they might be more likely than their friends to succumb to an addiction. Educate your teen about his or her family history, not only as it pertains to substance use and abuse, but also because your teen needs to understand the family health history in order to make good decisions as an adult.

If you do suspect that your teenager is struggling with alcohol use, abuse, or addiction, it’s important to get help sooner, rather than later. A good place to start is with his or her family doctor. After an assessment, the doctor might want to refer you to an addiction specialist. In some cases, teens may need inpatient rehabilitation. Learn how to support your teen through recovery if that is what he or she needs. Don’t be afraid to get counseling for yourself, too; there are support groups available for the parents and family members of teens with addictions. Being aware of your teen’s alcohol problem now and getting it treated early can save him or her a lot of grief in the coming years and for the rest of his or her life.


Further Reading