Teen Alcohol Abuse: What You Need to Know

Teen Alcohol Abuse: What You Need to Know

Being a teenager is hard. Young adults between the ages of 12 and 17 are caught between just that — being children and being adults. Their bodies and minds are going through major changes and it takes a great deal of energy and emotion to keep up. Many of us think back to our teenage years and shudder thinking of the awkward transition.

In addition, being a parent to a teenager is hard. Parents of teens are often overheard saying that they don’t recognize their child anymore, or that they have been replaced by an angsty, hormonal hurricane. Their once sweet kid is now a budding adult, complete with the attitude and need for independence. It can be hard for parents to cut the emotional ties they have had with their kids growing up and let them find themselves.

All of these changes are some of the reasons why parents worry that their teen will turn to drugs or alcohol. It’s natural to experiment during this transitional stage in life, but the line between experimentation and abuse is often blurred. With the rise of social media and other factors, it has become increasingly important for teenagers to keep up with their peers, which can lead to peer pressure and unhealthy behavior. In this article, we will look at a brief background of underage drinking, the rise we see today, why teens turn to alcohol, and what parents and caregivers can do about it. We will also cover how to get help if you worry that your child is abusing alcohol.


Teen Drinking: A Background

If we go all the way back to the Prohibition period in the early 20th century, we will remember that at one point, it was illegal for anyone (not just those under 21) to drink or manufacture alcohol. The government quickly realized that so many people were ignoring the law that they deemed it unacceptable and in 1933 Prohibition ceased. Instead of being completely limited, alcohol could only be consumed under certain circumstances, including only those of legal drinking age.

At that time, the drinking age varied from state to state. Most states considered 21 the age where one was considered an adult, therefore this was set as the drinking age.

During the Vietnam War, the age of adulthood was lowered to eighteen because of the draft, which begged Americans to question the drinking age as well. Many people wondered if it made sense to send young men off to war at 18, when they couldn’t legally enjoy a drink until years later. Because of this, the drinking age was lowered to 18 in many states. It wasn’t until 1984, with the founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, that this age was put into question again. What started out as a concerned organization soon became the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which both raised the drinking age to 21 and also made it a federally instituted legislation. States were no longer able to set their own drinking age.

It’s no surprise that Americans have been drinking alcohol illegally since the prohibition days. Underage drinking has progressed from being absolutely prohibited, to prohibited state-by-state with a majority drinking age of 21, to a majority drinking age of 18, to a federally mandated drinking age of 21 today. This tumultuous past is why it’s no surprise that under age drinking (and abuse) has been around for centuries and will continue to be around in the future.


Anatomy of a Teenager

Before diving into the acts of teen drinking and alcohol abuse, it’s beneficial to look at the psychological, social, and physical changes teens go through as these changes often drive young adults to drink or experiment with other drugs.

The Teenage Brain

There are countless books, research papers, and laboratory studies dedicated to the changing human brain because it is such a unique and important phenomenon.

In the most basic terms, different parts of the brain’s cortex, the part responsible for thought and memory, mature at different rates. According to The National Institute of Mental Health, first we learn how to process information and control our movements and controlling impulses, planning ahead, often thought of as more “adult” behavior, are some of the last to develop. There is also evidence to suggest that the parts of the brain involved in emotional responses are fully functioning, possibly even more so than in adults. This combination — lack of ability to think rationally and plan ahead coupled with intense emotions — is the recipe for impulsive decisions, dangerous behavior, and an appetite for adventure. Rates of death by injury between ages 15 to 19 are about six times that of the rate between ages 10 and 14. Crime rates are highest among young males and rates of alcohol abuse are high relative to other ages.

Also, exposing a growing teenage brain to increased alcohol use may interrupt key developmental processes, which can lead to cognitive impacts later on in life.

The Teenage Body

It’s pretty hard to forget the changes our bodies go through during our teen years. Between the ages of 10 and 20, we hit puberty, our hormone levels change, and we leave behind our childish ideas about ourselves and others. With these physical changes also come the emotional changes. Teens are known for comparing themselves to others and weighing their worth based on what others think. For example, if a teen boy isn’t as tall or muscular as his basketball teammate, he may think he isn’t as good as him. This is both an emotional and physical change that most teens go through.

The Teenage Environment

More than anything, the social environment for teenagers is always changing. For most children, friends come easy and most adapt to being around other kids their age. But when entering high school and the early years of college, a lot of teens find themselves having to make new friends. Friendship isn’t as easy as having something in common with a peer and is instead based off of appearance, self-worth, and approval. Because of this, a lot of teens feel the need to fit in with others, which may lead to teen drinking or drug use.

After looking at all these changes, it’s no surprise that teenagers experiment with alcohol use at an early age. Whether it’s because they are emotionally depressed or confused or are trying to fit in with others, most teenagers will try alcohol before they are legally allowed to. But what is the difference between healthy experimentation and abuse?


Effects of Teen Alcohol Abuse

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, nearly 50% of adolescents report having had at least one drink by the time they reach 8th grade, and over 20% report being drunk. Approximately 30% of seniors in high school engage in binge drinking, which is defined as having five or more drinks on one occasion within the past two weeks.

Besides being illegal, teenage drinking has a myriad of social and health effects. Teens who abuse alcohol are more likely to be injured in drunk driving accidents, have dangerous sex, and are more vulnerable to suicide and sexual assault.

Motor accidents are the leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 15 and 20, and drunk driving accidents harm others in the community. Because, as explained earlier, teens lack the part of their brain used for rational decision making, many drunk teens may not think twice before getting behind the wheel. This is a dangerous, and often deadly, combination.

With the rapid changes in their brain, teens are more likely to become depressed or have suicidal thoughts than adults or children with similar backgrounds, and with the use of alcohol, these thoughts can easily escalate. Alcohol inhibits the brain’s ability to think rationally and impairs an individual’s judgment and motor control. This is even more exemplified in young adults and teenagers.

Countless research sources have linked alcohol use with unsafe sexual behavior, including unprotected sex and having more sexual partners. This can lead to unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and long-term social consequences.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, people “who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence” than those who have their first drink at 20 years old or older. While this connection is not entirely causation, and may be the effect of many different factors, it’s important to understand how young people view alcohol, both in their teens and later in life. Professionals have been cited as saying that alcohol abuse at an early age could be linked to personality characteristics, genetic factors, environmental factors, and social factors. Either way, though, it is clear that teen drinking and alcohol abuse often has an effect on adult behavior and addiction.


What to Look for If You Suspect Alcohol Abuse

It’s normal for parents to worry at all stages in their child’s life. Whether it is getting physically or emotionally hurt or developing bad habits, a worried parent is a normal parent. It is also normal for teens to experiment during this stage in their life and learn good (and bad) behavior. This is scary for both parties involved, but a necessary step in transitioning from a child to an adult. But where does experimentation turn into addiction or abuse?

While we don’t encourage underage drinking at any level, having a sip of beer with friends or one glass of wine at a family gathering is different than regularly binge drinking or letting alcohol use affect everyday activities such as sports and school. According to Village Behavioral Health, alcohol is the most frequently used drug by teens in the United States. Some common signs of underage alcohol addiction and abuse include:

  • Delinquency in school or other organized activities, such as sports and music practices
  • Regular lethargy
  • Glazed or bloodshot eyes and “drunken” behavior
  • Decreased personal hygiene
  • Increased (or any) legal problems caused by alcohol
  • Continued alcohol use in spite of consequences
  • Unsafe behavior under the influence of alcohol
  • Aloof attitudes
  • Rapid changes in friend groups
  • Sneaking out or regularly staying out past curfews (if applicable)
  • Alcohol or fake IDs in a teens possession

In addition to these signs, teens who are abusing alcohol may seem more hostile or jumpy. If you think your teen is participating in unhealthy alcohol habits, we encourage you to reach out to our HARP Treatment Center.


Next Steps

If you suspect your teenager is misusing or abusing alcohol, there are a few ways to approach the situation as to not be condescending or make the situation worse. As you probably remember from your own teen years, the last thing a young person wants to do is have a confrontation or serious conversation about drinking with their parents. But, it’s important to have these conversations in an appropriate and beneficial manner.

Express Concern

The first thing you should do is express concern. While your first instinct may be to get mad at your child and punish them, it’s important to look at where this behavior is coming from. For example, maybe your daughter and her best friend are in a fight, and your daughter has started hanging out with a different group of kids who drink. It would make sense, then, to talk to your daughter about the social stresses she is going through and offer other alternatives to feel better. It’s important that your teen knows that, first and foremost, you care about their wellbeing.

Seek Help

If your teen’s drinking has progressed, it may be time to call in for help from other sources. Sources of support, for both the teen and their parents, is crucial for success in recovery. When both parties feel cared for, they may be more willing to seek help.


Our dedicated and experienced team at HARP Treatment Center has the resources to help those struggling with alcohol abuse and addiction. We approach all of our cases with respect and solemnity, including alcoholism. Contact us today at 561-379-3299 for more information.

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