Is There a Link Between Alcoholism and PTSD Among Teens?

Post traumatic stress disorder, more commonly known as PTSD, can affect teenagers who have been through a traumatic event recently or earlier in childhood. There is some evidence that people with PTSD might be more likely to have problems abusing alcohol than others who have the same type of background but do not have PTSD. If your teenager has been diagnosed with PTSD or if you suspect that a traumatic event in his or her past might be causing some behavioral and mental health disturbances, it’s important to be aware of the signs of alcohol abuse. In this article, we take a closer look at the link between alcoholism and PTSD in teens, as well as the signs of alcohol abuse so that you know when to seek appropriate help for your child.

What Is PTSD?

Post traumatic stress disorder can affect anyone who has experienced trauma. Some examples of trauma that might cause PTSD in a teen include:

  • witnessing a violent act like a rape or a murder
  • being the victim of a violent act
  • being in a severe car accident or witnessing one
  • witnessing or being involved with a school shooting or something similar

Child abuse can also cause PTSD during childhood or later in life. Many people who go through traumatic events recover from them within a fairly short amount of time, but others will have PTSD symptoms for many years or decades.

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • flashbacks to the traumatic event
  • trouble sleeping
  • being jumpy or easily startled
  • avoiding the feelings or physical places and circumstances that remind the person of the trauma

Some of this is normal for a short period of time after trauma. For example, if your teen is in a car accident, it’s normal for him or her to be nervous driving for a few days and to have a few dreams about being in a car accident. If they are having frequent nightmares or are refusing to drive at all for a long period of time, however, PTSD might be to blame.


The Alcoholism and PTSD Link

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs explains that people with post traumatic stress disorder are at an increased risk of developing an alcohol problem. This could be because they are attempting to self-medicate when experiencing flashbacks or to prevent flashbacks from occurring. Those with PTSD are also more likely than the average person to binge drink. This is particularly dangerous for teenagers, whose bodies are still growing and developing.

Another link between alcoholism and PTSD is that those who abuse alcohol might be more likely to develop PTSD. One theory is that those who abuse alcohol are more likely to experience traumatic events, such as car accidents, than they would if they were not using alcohol. They might also be more likely to end up witnessing or being a party to violent acts. Alcoholism can exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD, because both cause isolation, numbing, insomnia, and anger.


Signs That Your Teen Has an Alcohol Problem

Because many teens experiment with alcohol at some point, it can be hard to determine whether your child has an alcohol problem or has simply been caught experimenting. Trying alcohol or marijuana a couple of times does not necessarily indicate a problem. Drinking regularly, whether it’s every day or every Saturday night, does. Because of the link between alcoholism and PTSD, it’s important to be extra vigilant about alcohol use if your teen has been diagnosed with PTSD or if he or she has gone through trauma.

You can try asking your child how often he or she is drinking, if you have an open and communicative relationship. Since your teenager is not likely to tell you how often he or she is drinking, however, you will need to be alert for signs that they’re using alcohol too much. These signs can include the following:

  • breath smelling of alcohol
  • slurred speech
  • a disheveled appearance that is uncharacteristic for your teen
  • declining grades
  • getting into trouble
  • sleeping difficulties

How You Can Help

One of the best things you can do for a teen who has experienced trauma is seek professional help. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the more effective approaches to treating PTSD. Even if you are unsure that your teen has PTSD, if he or she has gone through a traumatic event, an evaluation by a mental health care professional is probably wise. Also, if you notice worsening symptoms of PTSD, such as more frequent sleep disturbances or more avoidant behavior, seek care for your teen.

You can also help prevent alcohol problems by knowing where your teen is, keeping communication open, setting boundaries that discourage alcohol use, and checking up to make sure your teen is where they say they are. Step in quickly and consult with your teen’s physician to see if a referral to an addiction specialist is needed if you suspect alcohol or drug use. If your teen has PTSD, be open and frank about the alcoholism and PTSD link, and make it clear that they are at an increased risk of an addiction if they choose to use alcohol.

Teaching Your Teen Healthier Ways to Cope

It can be very difficult to cope with post traumatic stress disorder. When your child is in cognitive behavioral therapy, they will learn healthy ways of managing their symptoms. You can help by reminding your teen to use these coping mechanisms when they seem stressed or bothered by their PTSD symptoms. Some ways of coping might include:

  • deep breathing
  • progressive muscle relaxation
  • mindfulness activities

It’s also important that your teen get back into a normal routine as soon as feasible after a traumatic event. Staying in bed and reliving the event is not going to help him or her to feel better. If your teen isn’t able to return to school, getting out of the house several times per week or every day can help him or her to feel more normal. Suggest inviting friends over or going out to see a movie or to the park. Do what you can to make things feel normal, even if it’s a new normal.

Parenting a child with PTSD is not easy on you, and of course it’s not easy on your teen. Helping him or her to learn healthy ways to cope will help your child for his or her lifetime, as they go through the normal stressors of adult life. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help for your teen’s PTSD, and also consider seeking counseling for yourself if you are having trouble with the pressures of your child’s condition.

Related Links

When Teen PTSD Requires Inpatient or Residential Treatment

Understanding the Diagnosis of PTSD

Teens Are More Vulnerable to PTSD Than Adults

Treating Teen PTSD and Co-Occurring Psychosis

Further Reading

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