Muir Wood therapist, David Laing

Teen Alcohol Abuse: Signs, Symptoms, and Impact

Teenage Alcohol Abuse: Where it Begins and How to Treat it

In the United States, it’s illegal for those younger than 21 to buy or purchase alcohol. That law has been in place for decades, and it’s designed to keep young people away from very dangerous substances that could harm them. Even so, young adults often believe that drinking isn’t dangerous, and according to a study in the journal Pediatrics, advertisements young people see on television and in magazines can persuade them to give alcohol a try.

The ads might even persuade young people that alcohol isn’t dangerous at all. Teens who do experiment with alcohol are breaking the law, obviously, but they might also be doing very significant harm to their changing bodies and developing minds, and they might even need help in order to stop the alcohol abuse from following them into adulthood.

Teen Drinking Patterns

Adolescence is a time of experimentation, when young people push the boundaries and break the rules, learning how to exert their own authority instead of continuing to listen to the opinions of others. It can be an exhilarating time, but it can also be a time of stress for teens, as they break connections and push trusted advisors away. Alcohol seems like a tailor-made substance for this turbulent time, as it can allow young people to feel relaxed and at ease, no matter what might be taking place around them. Since alcohol isn’t legal, drinking allows young people to buck the rules and transgress against the will of authority figures, and this might also be appealing for young people.

It’s often assumed that teens begin to dabble in alcohol when they are in the late stages of adolescence and all of their pressures and challenges are at their most acute level. However, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests that teens begin using alcohol much earlier in life, some starting before they reach 12 years old. It’s a startling fact, but it’s something parents should be aware of, as their teens may be sophisticated alcohol drinkers by the time they’re acquainted with the intricacies of high school.

These avid teen drinkers don’t sip on a nightly cocktail like their parents, and they may not even drink every day. But when these teens do drink, they may make up for lost time by drinking a significant amount of liquor all in one sitting in one massive binge. In fact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 90 percent of the alcohol young people drink is gulped down in a binge. Teens like this may drink four, five or even six drinks all at once, until they become so intoxicated that they just can’t drink any more. The idea here is to drink until drunk, and that kind of drinking behavior can have catastrophic consequences.

The Results of Teen Drinking

Adolescents may drink in order to feel the pleasure of being drunk, but young bodies are often susceptible to terrible hangovers after a binge that might include:

  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Inability to remember the drinking episode
  • Sensitivity to light and sound

The RAND Corporation reports that more than one-quarter of teens who drink experienced physical distress like this during the previous year, and many missed school or other obligations as a result. Teens like this may fall behind in their coursework, and they might even drop out of school altogether, as they can’t keep up their responsibilities and support a drinking habit.

The damage drinking can cause can be more than just temporary, and much of the long-term damage takes place inside the brain. The adolescent mind is growing and changing at a rapid rate, laying down new connections while modifying those connections that are no longer needed. Alcohol can arrest some of these remodeling activities, and it might stop some changes from even taking place. As a result, teens who drink may develop significant problems with learning and attention, and those problems might persist as long as the teen continues to drink.

Those teens who keep on drinking may make such intensive modifications to their brains on a cellular level that they become unable to function normally and feel healthy unless they have access to alcohol. Without the substance, they might feel shaky, sick and just out of sorts. This kind of physical dependence can lead to the uncontrolled use and abuse of alcohol, which is commonly defined as alcoholism. According to a study in the journal Pediatrics, almost half of all teens who start drinking prior to age 14 become dependent on alcohol at some point in their lives. The damage alcohol can cause might be to blame, but it can be difficult for people like this to recover on their own.

While alcohol can cause very significant problems for teens that are felt much later in life, the drug can also cause problems that teens can feel at the exact moment in which they’re drinking. An intoxicated teen might engage in risky sexual behaviors, for example, and cause a pregnancy or develop an infection. An inebriated teen might also get into a fight, a car accident or a physical altercation. Drunk teens might also get arrested. These problems could have a huge impact on a teen’s health, happiness and future plans.

Prevention Is Key

Since alcohol is so very toxic to teenagers, yet so attractive to them at the very same time, it behooves parents to do their part to keep their children away from these drugs over the long-term. For some parents, this means engaging a child in some form of absorbing activity, including sports. Numerous studies, including one in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, suggest that teens who participate in sports are less likely to use alcohol. It’s possible that the emphasis on physical development and achievement in sporting activities keeps teens away from drugs. It’s also possible that these sorts of activities just take up a significant amount of time, leaving little opportunity to dabble in dangerous substances of abuse. Even though sports may be interesting and helpful, not all teens have an athletic bent. Encouraging volunteering activities, crafts, academic achievement or even employment could be another avenue parents could explore in order to ensure their children don’t get into drug use.

Setting appropriate boundaries may also be helpful for parents who hope to keep their teens away from alcohol. These rules should be explained early, as mentioned, since some young people come to substance use well before the teen years.

Parents might require their teens to:

  • Name where they’re going and with whom before they’re allowed to leave the house in the evenings.
  • Leave all events in which alcohol is served.
  • Come home at a specific time.
  • Call parents if a companion is drinking, and the teen cannot get home safely.
    Parents might also consider examining their own drinking preferences, as young people might model their behavior on the habits they observe in their parents. If ending the day with a two-drink minimum is common in the household, it’s likely the teen will learn to do the same in time. Changing behaviors is hard, of course, but it could be vital in the prevention of a poor habit among teens.Addressing the Issuefather and son talkingAs much as some parents might want to prevent an alcoholism issue in their children, some teens develop poor habits despite the best intentions of the people who love them. Dealing with the problem is difficult, but it’s vital for parents to understand the depth of the alcohol abuse problem, so they can understand how best to help. An open conversation may be best here. Parents can simply ask their teens about their alcohol use, and then explain that alcohol isn’t appropriate for the family. If the teen expresses dismay and claims that the issue just isn’t under his/her control, it might be best for a professional to step in. Some teens who drink, as mentioned, have a physical dependence on the substance and they simply can’t stop drinking without help. A treatment program might provide the kind of help these teens need in order to heal.While enrolling the teen in treatment might seem like an overreaction and parents might feel as though their child is all alone in the world of abuse, treatment really is an excellent way to deal with an abuse issue, and many parents choose to take advantage of treatment in order to help their children. In fact, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that about 76 teens enter treatment programs each day for an alcoholism issue. Parents who choose to get help are far from alone.In a comprehensive treatment program for alcoholism, teens can learn more about how the substance can impact their bodies and their minds, and they can learn how to control their impulses and plan for the future, so they won’t be so tempted to trade long-term success when the urge to drink comes to the fore. A treatment program can also provide teens with the help they might need in order to break a physical dependence on alcohol without feeling sick or ill in the process.

    At Muir Wood, we offer an innovative treatment program for adolescent boys that combines sound scientific and physical care with compassionate mental health services that can help boys to heal. We even utilize nature in our programs, providing our clients with the opportunity to explore the wilderness, and their own inner strength, though a series of supervised adventure programs. We encourage you to download our admissions packet to learn more about our programs, or just call us with any questions you might have.