With fewer activities available, less contact with peers, and higher levels of stress, teens are drinking more often. And despite laws regarding teenage drinking, alcohol is relatively easy to access for teens even during a pandemic. That’s why more parents are asking, “How do I talk to my teenager about drinking?”
Why Teens Drink
Peer pressure is one of the biggest causes of teen alcohol use, even during the pandemic. Teens want to fit in and be part of the group, and they’re afraid of being ridiculed if they decide not to drink. In fact, a September 2020 study of Canadian teens published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that teens who were concerned about how social distancing would affect their reputation with peers were more likely to drink and use drugs—either alone or with friends. The study found that while binge drinking has gone down, the frequency of teen alcohol use has increased.
Stress is another catalyst for teen drinking. The pandemic has heightened stress at school, at home, and with friends, and added new stressors to the equation. To cope with distress and uncertainty, as well as escalating mental health issues as a result of COVID, teens sometimes turn to alcohol. The study bears this out: Researchers found that adolescents who reported high levels of depression, anxiety, and fear for their safety due to the pandemic were more likely to drink or use drugs when alone.
For teens who want to drink, accessibility is not necessarily an issue. In a 2018 study of 12- to 14-year-olds who consumed alcohol within the previous month, 96 percent reported that they received the liquor without paying for it. Teens typically access alcohol at home or from family members. This explains why they have continued to engage in drinking despite spending more time at home during the pandemic.
The Dangers of Teen Alcohol Use
Many of the dangers of teen alcohol use are well-known. They include several causes of death, including car accidents, homicides, and suicides, as well as other accidents directly related to alcohol consumption, such as alcohol poisoning.
Additionally, teenage drinking can lead to risky behaviors and can increase the likelihood of suffering physical or sexual assault. Furthermore, alcohol use can also lead to the use of other substances. In turn, teenage alcohol use and substance abuse can result in legal problems, as well as difficulty in daily life—with work, academics, and relationships.
Teen alcohol use is particularly dangerous because those who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop a dependency on alcohol. In addition, lesser-known risks of alcohol use include impaired development of the teen brain, including structure, function, and cognitive abilities.
Signs That Your Child May Be Drinking
Teens usually try to hide their drinking from their parents. However, there are a variety of signs of teen alcohol use that parents can watch for:
- Changes in mood, such as increased irritability and anger
- Behavioral or academic problems at school
- Being rebellious
- A new group of friends
- Being lethargic or showing less interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Memory or concentration issues
- Physical coordination issues, including slurred speech.
Drinking and Mental Health Issues
When a teen is suffering from anxiety, situational depression, collective trauma, or other mental health issues, the issue can manifest as alcohol abuse. This is known as a co-occurring disorder, and adds another layer of concern for parents. Unfortunately, teens suffering from a mood disorder are more likely to use alcohol than their peers, as they are seeking a form of self-medication.
Moreover, research shows that alcohol use exacerbates symptoms of a mental health disorder. And it goes the other way, too: Teens struggling with their mental health often have a more extreme reaction to alcohol. There are additional risks if they are taking medication for depression or another mental health issue, as alcohol is contraindicated for many medications. Therefore, teens who have been diagnosed with a mental health issue must be educated on the higher risks of alcohol use.
Talking to Teens About Drinking Early
Ideally, parents should have conversations about alcohol well before a teen is interested in drinking. However, it is never too late to talk to your teen about alcohol use. Having open discussions about these sensitive topics creates an environment of trust and love that encourages children to disclose their thoughts and emotions.
Here are some of the things parents can discuss with their children regarding alcohol:
- The dangers of drinking, short and long-term
- What it means for adults to drink responsibly
- Peer pressure and choosing friends wisely
- The effects of alcohol on mental health
- How drinking can be a symptom of trauma, anxiety, or depression.
When speaking about teen alcohol use, parents should do their best to remain calm and listen well to their children. Accusations, combativeness, and threats will only serve to create distance and defensiveness in teenagers. Adolescents who feel respected, trusted, and loved unconditionally will always respond better to important conversations. Not every child can be expected to immediately open up and confess everything. Still, when it’s delivered with love and trust, a parent’s message will be heard.
In addition, one of the best ways to combat peer pressure is to know your child’s friends. When parents spend quality time with their child’s friends, invite them into their home, and forge respectful relationships with them, it shows they care. Having parents who care reduces the need for teens to seek outside approval and a sense of belonging from peers. Therefore, they are less likely to drink and use drugs as a way of bonding with friends.
Setting an Example About Drinking
Attitudes and behaviors around teen drinking often have a foundation in the home. If alcohol is forbidden by the family, it can be more enticing to teens. On the other side of the coin, if someone in the home binge drinks or is alcohol dependent, those behaviors are often replicated in the next generation, studies show. Likewise, if the attitudes and behaviors about alcohol are healthy and spoken about openly, kids are more likely to also display healthy attitudes and behaviors toward drinking. However, that doesn’t mean inviting children to drink: Parents should be sure that they are not making alcohol available to their children.
Ultimately, parent-child communication is key in avoiding teen alcohol use. Parents need to be aware of teen alcohol use and how it relates to teen anxiety and depression. If a teen is drinking alone or with others, whether in person or while socializing remotely, parents need to dig deeper and explore what their children are going through and whether they need mental health support.
Talking to teens about anything can be daunting, and drinking is a serious subject. If a child shows signs of teenage drinking, these conversations are even more critical and time sensitive. Parents can reach out to Newport Academy or a local mental health or addiction expert for help in communicating with teens about alcohol. Seeking support may save your child’s life.
J Adol Health. 2020 Sept;67(3):354–361.
Curr Addict Rep. 2016 Mar; 3(1): 91–97.