The teenage years are filled with many milestones. From entering puberty, learning to drive, getting a first job, going on a first date, the list goes on. For many teens, adolescence is also the time when they get drunk for the first time and experiment with illicit drugs. As much as you want to protect your teen from the dangers of adolescent life, you can’t supervise him or her 24 hours a day.
What can a parent, guardian or family friend do to help a teenager understand the risks of alcohol consumption? Education is a great place to start. Learning how alcohol affects their brain and body may not stop a teenager from getting drunk. But, it might help to make safer, healthier choices in the future.
How Alcohol Affects Your Body
According to the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, up to 75 percent of teenagers have experimented with alcohol by the time they graduate from high school. More than 50 percent of high school seniors report that they’ve been drunk at least once. Even more disturbing are the statistics regarding accidents, violence and self-inflicted injuries among teens who are abusing alcohol. Alcohol plays a role in more than 30 percent of teenage deaths involving accidents, homicide or suicide.
The Dangers of Teen Alcohol Abuse
It’s important for teens to know the dangers that come with consuming alcohol, such as:
- Accidental falls
- Car crashes
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Teenage pregnancy
Adolescence is a time of rapid physical development. A lot of growing teens feel ambivalent about these changes. Facial hair, vocal changes and signs of sexual maturity can be both exciting and embarrassing. But teenagers may not realize that alcohol can cause delays in sexual development. Frequent drinking can also cause weight gain, which may put them at risk for developing high blood pressure and diabetes.
Teenagers who keep drinking into adulthood have a higher risk of developing liver problems. The liver is one of the most important organs in your body. It helps metabolize nutrients and rid your system of harmful toxins. Because your liver also metabolizes alcohol, excessive drinking can put a tremendous strain on this vital organ.
The University of Maryland Medical Center notes that long-term drinkers are more likely to get certain types of cancer. Alcohol consumption has been associated with higher risks of cancer of the head and neck, stomach and breasts. Alcohol can also harm the pancreas, causing a severely painful condition called pancreatitis.
Consuming alcohol as a teenager can also increase your chances of becoming physically dependent on alcohol. Recent clinical research shows that teenagers who start drinking before the age of 14 have a much higher risk of growing up to be alcoholics than teens who don’t imbibe until they’re 21, states the New York Times.
How Drinking Harms a Teen’s Brain
You’ve probably heard the jokes about how heavy alcohol consumption can kill brain cells. Recent neurological research indicates not only that these jokes are true, but that teenagers may be more prone to alcohol-related neurological damage than adults. A teenager’s brain is at a vulnerable stage of development. Alcohol interferes with this development, causing permanent changes in the ability to learn and remember.
Research conducted by neuropsychologists at Duke University indicates that in adolescents, drinking even a moderate amount of alcohol may damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain that enables you to learn and remember. Studies conducted on adolescent rats showed that younger drinkers may be even more likely to suffer neurocognitive deficits than older adults who drink, especially if they drink to the point of blacking out, or temporarily losing their memory.
The Duke research team also found that an alarming number of college-age drinkers experience blackouts during heavy drinking episodes. In an electronic survey of almost 800 college students, the researchers found that just over 50 percent of the students who responded reported that they had blacked out while drinking. The average number of blackouts reported in the survey was three.
Blackouts among teens are hazardous to neurological development, but they can also pose a serious risk to a teen’s safety and overall health. Teens who black out are more likely to take dangerous chances, like driving drunk, having unsafe sex or getting in fistfights. Binge drinking, or drinking four to five alcoholic beverages in one or two hours is a common practice among teens. The frequency of blackouts may be even greater than the survey indicates.
Drinking and Social Relationships
Teenagers are preoccupied with issues of identity and social relationships. In this formative period, adolescents experiment with different styles of clothing and makeup, try out unique variations of their names and may hang out with different social cliques at school. Peer pressure becomes a big factor in the choices that a teen makes as he or she develops socially; that’s why it’s crucial that parents get to know their children’s friends and their families.
For a lot of teens, alcohol may seem like a magic elixir that allows them to overcome shyness and social insecurity. But after awhile, teens who drink heavily on a regular basis will start to get a negative reputation at school. Kids who participate in sports, musical activities or school clubs will often avoid the teenagers who party all the time. Neglecting former friends and hobbies is one of the most significant signs of alcohol or drug abuse among teens.
The Cycle of Teenage Drinking
According to the National Institutes of Health, teens who drink may go through the following stages:
- Focus more of their time on friends who drink: Teenagers who take up partying will often give up long-term relationships. Meanwhile, sober teens will eventually stop trying to make contact with a friend who parties all the time.
- Start neglecting school and work: Students who drink heavily will start oversleeping, skipping classes and forgetting homework assignments. A student with a part-time job may stop showing up for work and eventually lose the position.
- Display unpredictable behavior or pick fights at home: The effects of alcohol can alter a teenager’s emotions, making him or her seem extremely moody. Teens who drink can become secretive, defensive and violent with siblings or parents. New tension around the house may indicate that a teenager has a substance abuse problem.
- Have problems with money: Partying can get expensive. Teens who suddenly never seem to have enough cash left over from their allowance or part-time job may be spending too much on liquor, beer or cigarettes.
- Become chronically tired and physically unhealthy: Frequent drinking can lead to weight gain, loss of sleep, problems remembering tasks or responsibilities and many other complications. While teens do need a lot of sleep, a teenager who starts sleeping more than usual or displays signs of fatigue and depression may have a drinking problem.
High school and college students who spend a lot of time with a drinking crowd may have trouble adjusting socially if they decide to seek treatment. An integrated treatment program for teens can help adolescents re-enter the world of their sober peers and learn how to build strong, lasting friendships that are based on something more substantial than a love of partying.
Talking to Teens About Alcohol Abuse
It’s never too early to start introducing children or teens to the dangers of alcoholism. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention cautions that alcohol is the most commonly abused drug among American teenagers. The 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that among high school students, during the past 30 days:
- 35% drank some amount of alcohol.
- 21% binge drank.
- 10% drove after drinking alcohol.
- 22% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.
- More teenagers abuse alcohol than any other drug, including street drugs or tobacco
If parents could stop teenagers from drinking simply by talking to them about the dangers of alcohol abuse, wouldn’t these numbers be lower? Talking definitely is not the only way to reduce the risk that your teenager will drink, but it’s a good place to start. Talking to your teen provides a number of important benefits, like conveying your concern, opening up communication and providing education. Even if your teenager doesn’t appear interested in what you have to say, he or she is probably hearing and remembering more than you realize.
Pointers for Talking to Your Child
Tips for Talking to Teens About Alcohol Abuse
When you initiate a talk with your son or daughter, keep these points in mind:
- Stay calm. Teenagers don’t respond well to nagging, but they often respond to calm discussions. When you’re talking to your teen about alcohol, it’s important to keep your emotions in check. Although you may be angry, scared, anxious or all of the above, your teen will be more likely to sit still and listen if you aren’t upset when you have your discussion. You’ll also be less likely to blurt out accusations, make negative remarks about your child or say things you’ll regret later.
- Expect respect/give respect. No matter how you feel about what’s been going on in your teen’s life, criticism won’t help you convince your child that he or she has a problem. Try to be as objective and compassionate as possible, remembering that many teens go through periods of partying. At the same time, you shouldn’t accept any rude or disrespectful remarks from your teenager when you talk. If you have trouble feeling a sense of compassion, talk with an addiction counselor, a therapist or a pastor before you talk with your teen.
- Be prepared to help. If you suspect that your teen has a drinking problem that requires more intervention than you can provide, be prepared to offer a solution. Do your research before you have the discussion so you can talk to your teen about treatment options. Whether you decide to pursue outpatient treatment, intensive residential care or attend local 12-step meetings for teens, you should be ready to establish a game plan.
Finding the Support You Need
It’s not always possible for a parent to know when a teen’s alcohol use turns into alcohol abuse. When a parent catches a teenager drinking, the typical reaction is one of shock or alarm. A casual experiment with beer at a summer party probably doesn’t indicate that your teenager has a drinking problem. However, it’s important to keep in mind that occasional drinking can easily turn into frequent binges if your teen is hanging out with a party crowd.
If you need help deciding whether your teenager needs more intensive intervention, talk with a knowledgeable counselor who understands the risk factors that teens face. Our experienced counselors at Newport Academy realize that teenage alcohol abuse often stems from complicated emotional or psychosocial factors. Teenagers who are drinking heavily may require counseling for depression, anger or grief issues as well as substance abuse treatment. Teen rehab doesn’t have to be scary. Making a call can be the first step in getting the support you need as a parent to help your teenager start a healthy new life in sobriety.