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Teen Alcohol Abuse

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Underage drinking presents a wide range of dangers to your teen’s health and well-being.

In 2018, just over 42% of American 10th graders reported drinking alcohol in the past year.The numbers rise with age—jumping for the seniors in high school who were similarly surveyed—with just over 58% having used alcohol in the last 12 months.In the United States, 11% of the alcohol that is consumed is drunk by people between the ages of 12 and 20.3,4

Adolescent substance use frequently co-occurs with other psychiatric diagnoses, including anxiety, mood, psychotic, and disruptive disorders and can increase the risk of behaviors such as suicide attempts and unplanned sexual encounters.10 In addition, the younger youth initiate alcohol use, the greater their risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD) later in life.10

These are distressing statistics for parents to take in. Even teens showing no overt signs of problematic behavior could be at risk for a variety of dangers associated with underage alcohol consumption. With a certain amount of vigilance, and with a fair share of honest and open communication, however, parents can do much for their teens in terms of preventing or addressing an existing drinking problem.


Signs Your Teen May Be Abusing Alcohol

It’s no easy task for parents to accurately detect possible alcohol abuse, even in a teenager who lives under their roof. Some of the warning signs to look for that may indicate a potential underage drinking problem may include the following:2,5,6

    • Decreased involvement in extracurricular activity.Warning signs of teen alcohol use may include lethargy, depression, and erratic behavior.
    • Lethargy.
    • A decline in study habits.
    • Symptoms of depression.
    • A decline in time spent with family.
    • Weight changes.
    • Erratic behavior.
    • Combativeness towards parents or other authority figures.
    • Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing.
    • Deterioration in physical appearance and personal grooming.
    • Using eyedrops to hide blood-shot eyes.
    • Change in relationships.

A household that contains alcoholic beverages is at particular risk, and attention should be paid to changes in the amounts remaining in bottles of liquor, or the number of beers in the fridge.


How Should I Respond?

In short, you should respond quickly. Underage drinking presents a wide range of dangers to your teen’s health and well-being. Drivers between the ages of 16 and 20 are 17 times more likely to die in a car accident when their blood alcohol concentration is .08% than when they have not been drinking.7 Underage drinking may have harmful effects on cognitive development, as the brain continues to mature into a person’s early 20s and excessive drinking in the teen years may cause lasting cognitive deficits and alter brain development.4,8 In addition, teens who drink are also at risk of impaired judgment (which can lead to violent behavior, drinking and driving), etc.) and increased risk of physical or sexual assault.4

In terms of prevention, helping to educate teens to understand the risks and provide them with strategies and motivation to abstain from drinking is critical. Although there may be programs geared toward this type of education in place at your teen’s school, parents play a critical role in responding to the problem, and it begins with open and honest, judgment-free communication with your family. Similar to how the schools have periodic educational sessions, it helps to sit your entire family down to go over the topic of alcohol and alcohol abuse. Tell them stories that you’ve encountered about the associated dangers. Set and then follow-up on enforcing house guidelines against drinking.9

Underage drinking may have harmful effects on cognitive development, as the brain continues to mature into a person’s early 20s and excessive drinking in the teen years may cause lasting cognitive deficits and alter brain development.

Above all, keep an open line of communication when it comes to any questions or concerns that have about alcohol and drugs. Studies show time and time again that parents who are actively involved in the lives of their children are much less likely to raise adolescents and teenagers who drink.9   Households where parents make it clear that they do not approve of underage drinking and have a relationship with their child where the child feels they are closely allied with their family can provide protective factors against underage alcohol use.10


Is Rehab Necessary?

The serious problems that can result when young people begin to abuse alcohol can’t always be addressed by family support alone. Seeking professional help is sometimes called for. By no means does seeking this type of help represent a shortcoming of previous parental efforts. It merely reflects the severity of the issue at hand.

Setting up visits to a counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, or other substance abuse treatment professional are all good first options. There are some situations that will require further intervention, such as outpatient and, potentially, inpatient substance abuse treatment should the situation call for it.

Talking with a professional at any stage of the process can help a parent make the right choice in alcohol abuse treatment type, should it be warranted.


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Ryan Kelley is a nationally registered Emergency Medical Technician and the former managing editor of the Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS). During his time at JEMS, Ryan developed Mobile Integrated Healthcare in Action, a series of in-depth articles on Community Paramedicine programs across the country that go beyond transporting patients to emergency rooms and connects specific patients, such as repeat system users, the homeless and others with behavioral health issues and substance use disorders, to definitive long-term care and treatment. In his current capacity as Medical Editor for American Addiction Centers, Ryan works to provide accurate, authoritative information to those seeking help for substance abuse and behavioral health issues.
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