Teen Alcohol Use

Facts About Teen Alcohol Use All Parents Should Know

In a recent study, the CDC found that alcohol is the most commonly used drug in the United States today, even more than tobacco or illicit substances. Drinking is also responsible for 4,700 preventable teen deaths every year. Even though underage drinking is illegal in this country, teenagers and young adults aged 14 to 20 consume a shocking 11% of all the alcohol sold in the U.S. Teen alcoholism statistics are just as disturbing, with 22% of teens engaging in binge drinking, or periods of excessive alcohol use for the sole purpose of becoming intoxicated.

This article’s intent is not to merely highlight the warning signs of underage drinking, but to shed light on the more dangerous aspects of alcohol use, including abuse and dependence, which can have devastating, detrimental effects that can last well into adulthood.

VIDEO: Teen Alcohol Use And The Brain

How Parents Can Impact Teen Alcohol Use

Young people who see their parents drink are twice as likely to drink and become intoxicated more often. Likewise, poor parental supervision also contributes to the chances that a teenager will not only start drinking but drink to excess. Surveys have shown that if a teen spends more than two nights a week out with their friends, they are more likely to drink and that much more likely to eventually develop issues with alcohol. A parent who pours themselves a glass of wine, or two, after a hard day’s work, is sending all the wrong signals to their children. A child only has to see their parents drinking in front of them a handful of times for the unhealthy associations to form.

Stage 1: Reasons Why Teen Alcohol Use Begins

Teenagers can begin drinking for a variety of reasons that extend well beyond simple peer pressure. Some of these reasons can include:

  • Moving to a new town where they don’t know anyone.
  • Transitions in their lives that they’re having trouble adjusting to, like going from elementary school to high school or getting their driver’s license.
  • Increased stress in the home or at school.
  • Problems in the family, including parents divorcing, or a parent who abuses alcohol themselves.
  • A history of behavioral and/or developing mental health issues.

Stage 2: Having Access To & Experimenting With Alcohol

Contrary to popular belief, it is not tobacco or marijuana use that acts as a “gateway” to the use or abuse of other substances. Today, it’s understood that access to alcohol is the deciding factor for whether or not a teen decides to drink. At this stage, teenagers are especially vulnerable to influence from friends as well as their parents’ behavior. The second stage involves symptoms indicating experimental or more occasional use of alcohol.

Some warning signs that your teenager might be at this stage can include:

  • Appearing visibly tired or exhausted frequently.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Having glassy, watery and/or bloodshot eyes.
  • Displaying changes in their usual eating habits or sleep patterns.
  • Showing weight gain, depending on the frequency of their use of alcohol.
  • Staggering or display poor motor control and/or shaking.
  • Levels of the alcohol in bottles in the home changing.

Stage 3: Escalating Teen Alcohol Usage

The third stage of escalating alcohol use can include increased binge drinking, or consuming more than five alcoholic beverages at a time. However, the fourth stage is when the warning signs of dependence start to really appear. These warning signs can include:

  • Neglecting personal hygiene, sloppy appearance, and/or noticeably smelling like alcohol.
  • Exhibiting memory lapses and inability to concentrate.
  • Using breath mints or breath spray to mask the smell of alcohol.
  • Exhibiting extreme changes in mood or behavior, seemingly overnight, including an increased tendency for depression, lack of interest in normal activities, and low self-esteem.
  • Becoming withdrawn, overly argumentative, defensive and/or destructive.
  • Showing signs of problems at school, including falling grades, increased absences and discipline problems.
  • Hanging out with a new group of friends, but is reluctant to introduce them to you.
  • Lying about their whereabouts or who they were with.
  • Stealing from you and/or your spouse to buy alcohol.

Stage 5: Alcohol Dependence

The fifth and most serious, final stage of alcohol use is full-blown dependence, where the teen’s entire waking life revolves around acquiring alcohol and only ever feeling “normal” when they drink. This is most commonly known as the “maintenance” stage, where the teen has to drink more and more alcohol to achieve the same level of intoxication because their body is developing a tolerance for the alcohol they’re consuming.

Signs that your teen has reached this stage can include:

  • Engaging in risky behaviors, including drinking on the job, driving while intoxicated, or unprotected sexual activity.
  • Preoccupation with drinking or becoming intoxicated.
  • Repeated citations from law enforcement for drinking or being intoxicated.
  • They spend most of their time either trying to obtain alcohol, drinking alcohol, and/or recovering from a hangover as a result of drinking.
  • Loss of control while drinking, being unable to stop at just one drink. Or even just two, or three, or five drinks.
  • Increased likelihood of committing violent crimes while intoxicated, including rape, robbery and assault.
  • Increasing thoughts of and a tendency toward self-harm and/or suicide.

Avoiding Teen Alcohol Use & Addiction

One of the best ways to avoid the dangerous downward spiral of teen alcohol use before it starts is to begin discussing the consequences of underage alcohol use and abuse with your children early. Encourage your child to become more involved in school and extracurricular activities. Most importantly, stay involved in your child’s life. Know who their friends are, who their friends’ parents are, and keep those lines of communication wide open. Communicate with your child, too. Talk with them about their day, find out if they’re feeling stressed out about something, tell them that they can come to you anytime, for any reason, to talk about anything. Have rules and set limits for your child and enforce those rules. All these things can help your child to feel more loved and secure and can potentially reduce the likelihood that they will drink.

If your child has already begun drinking or, worse, is exhibiting behaviors that indicate excessive alcohol use or dependency, then the most important thing is for you to seek help. Locate a doctor who specializes in teen alcohol addiction and schedule an appointment. They can help you to understand the severity of your child’s illness and the steps necessary to help them begin to heal. Sometimes those steps might involve anything from detox to in-patient treatment or family counseling. Teenagers often have difficulty with self-reflection, so they respond especially well to group counseling. Fortunately, teenage alcoholism is a very treatable condition.