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Signs of Alcoholism in Teens

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Alcoholism, also known as alcohol dependence, is a negative pattern of alcohol use leading to a wide range of life problems. Moreover, signs of alcoholism include tolerance (needing to drink more in order to get intoxicated), disruption of daily functioning as a result of drinking, withdrawal symptoms when drinking decreases, and a preoccupation with drinking.

Although teen alcohol use has decreased in recent years, alcohol is still the most commonly abused drug among adolescents. Therefore, knowing the signs of alcoholism is essential for parents, teachers, and anyone who works with teens.

Signs of Alcohol Dependence

Signs of alcoholism in teens can vary widely, and may be physical, mental, behavioral, and/or emotional. For adolescents, alcohol problems most often arise as a result of anxiety, depression, or trauma. Alcohol can serve as a form of self-medication for teens who are struggling and in pain. In addition, genetics affect the likelihood of alcoholism.

Regardless of the causes, the sooner the problem is identified, the earlier a teen can begin treatment to address both the symptoms and the underlying causes of alcoholism.

Physical Signs of Alcoholism

The most obvious signs of alcohol dependence are often physical. They include the following:

  • The smell of alcohol on a teenager’s breath
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Slow or slurred speech
  • Fatigue
  • Deteriorating physical hygiene and grooming
  • Building up a tolerance to alcohol that results in drinking progressively more over time.

Alcoholism Mood Swings and Emotional Red Flags

One of the most telling signs of teenage alcohol abuse is a direct link between drinking and a teen’s emotional state. For example, they may turn to alcohol to suppress feelings of anger or relieve feelings of sadness. This is known as self-soothing or self-medication.

In addition, teens who abuse alcohol may exhibit extreme mood swings. At times, they may seem combative and aggressive, or they may act unusually agreeable.

Furthermore, recent research shows that teen alcohol abuse interferes with the expression of a protein that is crucial for brain development. Hence, teen alcoholism can cause lasting changes in the part of the brain that regulates emotion.

School Performance and Peer Relationships

Signs of teen alcohol abuse also include slipping grades and failure to show up for school, sports, clubs, or other extracurricular activities. This is often the biggest sign that a teen needs treatment for alcoholism. In addition, failing at school can fuel the cycle of alcohol abuse, leading to a loss of self-esteem that catalyzes increased drinking.

Moreover, if a teenager changes their friend group, this can be one of the signs of alcoholism. A teen who is abusing alcohol may turn away from old friendships in favor of spending time with peers who drink. Friendships are very influential for teens. Thus, the peers they spend time with may impact whether they continue abusing alcohol.

Behaviors and Attitude as Signs of Alcoholism

It’s not always easy for parents to tell the difference between alcohol abuse and adolescents’ attempts to establish independence. For example, teens usually want more privacy and autonomy than they did as children. However, secretiveness and lying may indicate alcohol problems. When a teenager lies about where they’re going and what they’re doing, this may be another of the signs of alcoholism.

In addition, teens who are drinking may begin avoiding their parents, going straight to their rooms after school rather than spending time with the family. Other signs are more blatant, such as empty alcohol bottles hidden in their room.

Treatment for Teen Alcoholism

The most effective teen rehab for alcoholism involves identifying the root causes of the abuse. Once adolescents stop drinking and are in a sober environment, evidence-based clinical and experiential therapy can help them get to the heart of the problem.

Hence, inpatient or residential treatment for teen alcoholism is often necessary for sustainable recovery. However, for some teens, outpatient treatment or partial hospitalization programs may offer the help they need.

Modalities and approaches to address teen alcoholism include the following:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that helps teens shift their thoughts and behaviors
  • Family therapy, as studies show that family involvement improves teen recovery outcomes
  • Motivational Interviewing to enhance adolescents’ engagement with and commitment to treatment
  • Recovery counseling with Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselors
  • Twelve-Step meetings
  • Group sessions with peers, guided by therapists
  • Experiential modalities such as creative arts therapies and Adventure Therapy.

With comprehensive, integrated treatment, teens have a very good chance of full recovery from alcoholism. In addition, they can heal from the underlying issues. Hence, teens can move into the next stage of their life with a foundation of self-knowledge and a toolkit of positive coping mechanisms.


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