Teens & Alcohol: The Risks

Alcohol is a drug, as surely as cocaine and marijuana are, and for many of our country’s young people, alcohol is the number one drug of choice. In fact, teens use alcohol more frequently and heavily than all other illicit drugs combined. While some parents may feel relieved that their teen is “only” drinking, it’s important to remember that alcohol is a powerful, mood-altering drug.

Not only can alcohol affect the mind and body in unpredictable ways, but teens lack the judgment and coping skills to handle alcohol wisely. Some of the catastrophic results of teen drinking include:

  • Significant brain development continues through adolescents. A recent study by the National Institute of Health presents the first concrete evidence that protracted, heavy alcohol use can impair brain function in adolescents, causing, in many cases, irreversible damage.
  • Alcohol-related traffic accidents are a major cause of death and disability among teens. Alcohol use also is linked with the deaths of young people by drowning, fire, suicide and homicide.
  • Teens who use alcohol are more likely to become sexually active at earlier ages, to have sexual intercourse more often, and to have unprotected sex more than teens who do not drink.
  • Young people who drink are more likely than others to be victims of violent crime, including rape, aggravated assault, and robbery.
  • Teens who drink are more likely to have problems with school work and school conduct.
  • An individual who begins drinking as a young teen is four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than someone who waits until adulthood to use alcohol.

The message is clear: Alcohol use is very risky business for young people. And the longer children delay alcohol use, the less likely they are to develop any problems associated with it.

Could My Child Develop a Drinking Problem?

Kids at highest risk for alcohol-related problems are those who:

  • Begin using alcohol or other drugs before the age of 15
  • Have a parent who is a problem drinker or an alcoholic
  • Have close friends who use alcohol and/or other drugs
  • Have been aggressive, antisocial, or hard to control from an early age
  • Have experienced childhood abuse and/or other major traumas
  • Have current behavioral problems and/or are failing at school
  • Have parents who do not support them, do not communicate openly with them, and do not keep track of their behavior or whereabouts
  • Experience ongoing hostility or rejection from parents and/or harsh, inconsistent discipline

The more of these experiences a child has had, the greater the chances that he or she will develop problems with alcohol. Having one or more risk factor does not mean that your child definitely will develop a drinking problem. It does suggest, however, that you may need to act now to help protect your youngster from later problems.

How To Help Your Child Say “No” to Drinking

At some point, your child will be offered alcohol. To resist such pressure, teens say they prefer quick “one-liners” that allow them to dodge a drink without making a big scene. It will probably work best for your teen to take the lead in thinking up comebacks to drink offers so that he or she will feel comfortable and confident saying them. But to get the brainstorming started, here are some simple pressure-busters from the mildest to the most assertive:

  • No thanks.
  • I don’t feel like it, do you have any soda?
  • Alcohol’s NOT my thing.
  • Why do you KEEP pressuring me when I’ve said NO.

Some parents may suspect that their child already has a drinking problem. While it can be hard to know for sure, certain behaviors can alert you to the possibility of an alcohol problem.

Warning Signs of a Drinking Problem

The following behaviors may indicate an alcohol or other drug problem, but it’s important to note that some also reflect normal teenage growing pains. Experts believe that a drinking problem is more likely if you notice several of these signs at the same time, if they occur suddenly, and if some of them are extreme in nature:

  • Mood changes: flare-ups of temper, irritability, and defensiveness
  • School problems, including poor attendance, low grades, and/or recent disciplinary action
  • Rebelling against family rules
  • Switching friends, along with a reluctance to have you get to know the new friends
  • A “nothing matters” attitude, for example sloppy appearance, a lack of involvement in former interests, and general low energy
  • Finding alcohol in your child’s room or backpack, or smelling alcohol on his or her breath
  • Physical or mental problems: memory lapses, poor concentration, bloodshot eyes, lack of coordination, or slurred speech

If you think your child may be in trouble with drinking, you can protect them from years of pain by seeking advice from a mental health professional specializing in alcohol problems as soon as possible. The life you save may be your child’s.

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