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Teen Alcohol Abuse

More teens abuse alcohol than any other drug on the market. Just because it's legal doesn't mean alcohol isn't dangerous — this highly-addictive substance turns many binge drinkers into alcoholics. If your child has become dependent on alcohol, it's time to get help.

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12 min read

Why Is Alcohol Dangerous?

Alcohol is the most frequently used and abused drug among teens. The law may prohibit people from drinking before they reach 21 years old, but in reality, it’s not too difficult for teens to find a way to get alcohol. They look at alcohol advertisements and even how your family may interact with alcohol as an example and believe drinking will allow them to have fun, seem cool and is a way to connect with peers.

Because drinking alcohol is so pervasive in our society, it’s easy to forget how dangerous the substance can be. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens and 25% of them involve a teen driver who was drinking underage. One of every three emergency room visits in the U.S. are related to alcohol, and nearly a third of these involve kids under 21. In 2010 alone, there were nearly 189,000 alcohol-related ER visits for underage drinkers.

stat on alcohol abuse and death

It’s important to educate your middle school or high school teen on the risks of drinking as they get older and may be exposed to more situations where underage drinking is present, such as parties.

Teen Alcohol Abuse Facts

Research shows that most teens try alcohol before any other addictive substance like tobacco or drugs. Teen alcohol abuse statistics are staggering. Every month, more than 35% of high schoolers drink some amount of alcohol. Among 8th graders, 28% say it’s easy to get alcohol when they want it. The number jumps to 52% by the time they’re in the 10th grade and to 63% when they’re high school seniors.

Even if it doesn’t send them to the ER, being drunk can land your teen in less than desirable scenarios, such as legal trouble, poor academic performance and a possible dependence on alcohol.

Binge Drinking

Teenagers are especially prone to binge drinking, which is drinking a large quantity of alcohol over a short period of time. In the face of social pressure and the reduced inhibitions alcohol brings, binge drinking has become commonplace. This trend substantially amplifies the risks associated with alcohol.

After a period of binge drinking, your teen enters an especially dangerous state of intoxication that can lead to black outs and losing control of awareness, motor functions and decision-making. With their cognition limited, the tendency is to continue drinking even after 4 or 5 drinks. This is especially true if a teen is facing peer pressure.

Adolescents between 12 and 20 years old account for more than 11% of alcohol consumption in the U.S. Almost 90% of this alcohol is consumed via binge drinking. It may be scary to think your child is in danger from alcohol abuse or possible alcohol dependence, but talking to them about the topic is a fear that must be faced. Education and early intervention is key to preventing some of these dangerous outcomes.

Where Can Your Teen Get Alcohol?

Not being of legal drinking age won’t stop a resourceful teenager from finding the alcohol they’re looking for. Studies have found 7% of high school students reported they’ve used a fake ID to buy alcohol at some point. That percentage doubles by the time they’re college freshmen. In fact, 56% of teens who reported to have ever borrowed or used a fake ID also reported that they consume alcohol weekly.

Unfortunately, a teen’s options for buying or using alcohol are endless. Unlike some harder drugs, the ubiquity of alcohol makes it far too easy to come by if your teen is looking for it.

Why Do Teens Drink?

During adolescence, your teen begins to experience both the thrills and pains of young adulthood — from making friends and going out late to carrying the weight of new responsibilities. Causes for experimentation with alcohol may be any combination of factors.

Stress

Sometimes, teens turn to alcohol to cope with their stress. In fact, stress has been found to be directly proportional to the likelihood for teenage alcohol abuse. If your teen is struggling at school, at home, or with their social life, they may use alcohol to let go of their stress, although drinking may also intensify these feelings and thoughts.

Influence from TV and Digital Media

It’s impossible to ignore the impact that the media has on influencing young people to experiment with alcohol. Reality shows and teen dramas liberally depict — and sometimes even glorify — the lives of perpetual partiers and drinkers.

Technology has also changed the game entirely. Now that more and more teens carry smartphones, keeping tabs on social media influence on your child can be an impossible task.

teen girl looking at laptop

Spending time on social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram makes teens 3 times more likely to experiment with alcohol. In fact, 40% of teens on social networks say they come across photos of people drinking or getting drunk. More than 90% saw these pictures when they were 15 or younger. And 87% of parents turn a blind eye to their teen’s social network activity and don’t think spending time on social media makes their teen more likely to drink. But it may.

Peer Pressure, Parties and Drinking Games

A teen’s first big party can be a significant social milestone: there’s music blasting, their friends are everywhere and there are no intrusive parents hovering around. Teens free in this environment can make unwise decisions. And if your teen doesn’t decide to drink on their own, the pressure to “catch up” with their peers at these parties can force their hand. Teen drinking parties can be a circus of party drugs and alcohol consumption due to the “now or never” feeling the teens may be experiencing.

Drinking games like Flip Cup, Beer Pong and Ring of Fire make light of getting very drunk in a hurry. In a party atmosphere, the potential exists for a teen’s peers to pull them into a drinking game and make it sound fun and exciting. It’s easy for kids playing these games to make drinking competitive, which can eventually make them lose track of how much alcohol they’ve consumed in the process.

Is Alcohol Addictive?

Alcoholism among young people - teenager drinking beer

Prolonged alcohol use can alter one’s brain chemistry. When the right factors are at play, such as genetics and environment, among others things, a want to drink becomes a need to drink, forming a dependence on alcohol and alcohol use disorder.

Alcoholism is defined as two things:

  • Compulsive behavior that comes along with the constant pursuit of the next drink
  • The inability to abstain from drinking

According to one study, 10% of kids age 16-17 have serious alcohol problems. That number is around 3% for 12–17 year-olds, which amounts to thousands of cases across the country. Among adults living with alcoholism, most started drinking when they were young. Left unaddressed, a teen alcohol abuse can grow into addiction — a medical condition your child will face for the rest of their life.

What Are the Effects of Alcohol Abuse?

Other than addiction, it’s important to be aware of the other risks involved with underage drinking. Alcohol is a potent and dangerous drug, the consequences of which can be as severe as those of any illicit drug.

The effects of teen alcohol abuse include:

  • Academic failure or school suspension
  • Trouble with law enforcement
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Sexually-transmitted diseases
  • Problems with friends or family
  • Impacted brain development
  • Serious injuries
  • Getting into harder drugs
  • Alcohol poisoning (even death)

Under the influence of alcohol, teens lose control of their inhibitions and engage in reckless behavior, putting themselves and others in danger. Matters are made worse when cars become part of the equation. When intoxicated, any driver becomes a liability. DUIs and major accidents are a regular result of teens driving while drunk. In fact, when a person start drinking in their teens, they’re seven times more likely to be in an alcohol-related crash.

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Alcohol use that starts in adolescence also increases a person’s risk for future problems as well. Among those who report drinking before age 15, 40% agree they had alcohol-dependent behavior at some point later in life. Experts agree that an early relationship with alcohol greatly increases the risk for a substance problem later on.

How Is The Body Affected?

In many ways, alcohol is very much like a poison. While some may argue an occasional glass of wine is beneficial, there’s research that shows prolonged alcohol consumption can be harmful to the body. The more you drink, the more harm you are doing.

One major target of alcohol is the liver, which plays a big role in breaking down the alcohol entering your body. Over time, drinking can cause liver damage, along with issues such as fatty liver, fibrosis or cirrhosis. It can also lead to pancreatitis, a swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that can impair digestion.

Drinking can also take a toll on your teen’s heart. Prolonged alcohol abuse may cause high blood pressure, which increases the risk of stroke or heart attack down the line. Other heart problems associated with alcohol include irregular heartbeat and cardiomyopathy, which is the stretching and drooping of heart muscle.

Drinking alcohol can also weaken the immune system, exposing the user to diseases and even certain cancers that include liver, throat and mouth cancer.

The overall wear and tear of drinking can become apparent in heavy drinkers. Alcohol is very high in calories, and heavy drinking can tip the scales on your teen’s physical well-being. In addition to developing a “beer belly,” excessive drinking can also have a general aging effect, impacting overall appearance and hygiene.

Alcohol Poisoning

It doesn’t always lead to death, but alcohol poisoning is a very real problem when someone drinks more than they can handle. In the case of alcohol poisoning, so much alcohol enters the bloodstream that the brain can’t function properly and basic life-support functions like breathing and temperature control shut down.

If your teen has alcohol poisoning, they may exhibit several of these symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing (less than 8 breaths per minute)
  • Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths)
  • Mental confusion
  • Stupor, coma, or inability to wake up
  • Hypothermia, bluish skin or paleness

It’s something your teen should never have to experience. But if they do, they need to get medical attention immediately.

How Is The Mind Affected?

Once alcohol enters the bloodstream, it can mess with the brain’s communication pathways, which can disrupt your teen’s mood, behaviors and general ability to think straight. Over time, this can even change the brain’s appearance.

The earlier someone starts drinking, the more profound the impact on their brain’s development. Teens who start drinking earlier are not only at higher risk for future addiction, but can develop serious issues with memory and concentration due to how malleable the brain is during these years.

Signs of Teen Alcohol Abuse

If you observe some of these warning signs, it may be time to approach your teen about their alcohol use. Indicators of alcohol abuse might include:

  • Smelling alcohol on their breath or clothes
  • Slurred speech or impaired coordination
  • Issues with memory or concentration
  • Changing group of friends
  • Falling grades in school
  • Suspicious behavior, such as lying or increased secrecy
  • Skipping out on obligations and responsibilities
  • Money troubles
  • Worsening appearance (weight gain, poor hygiene, etc.)
  • Bad attitude or rebellious behavior
  • Depression
teenager laying on the ground near liquor bottle

Signs of Alcohol Withdrawal

When a teen with an alcohol dependence stops drinking, they may suffer an alcohol withdrawal. The severity of withdrawal symptoms can vary greatly depending on the degree of the teen’s alcohol dependence and other factors. Withdrawal typically occurs within 8 hours of the last drink, but it’s been shown to kick in days later. While the intensity of symptoms usually peaks between 24–72 hours, some symptoms can linger for weeks.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Clammy skin
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Tremor of the hands or other body parts

In some extreme cases, an alcohol withdrawal can cause:

  • Seizures
  • Fever
  • Hallucinations
  • Severe confusion

Your teen’s first thought while experiencing alcohol withdrawal may be to find another drink so the painful withdrawal symptoms will go away. If their problem has reached this point, though, treatment cannot be delayed any longer. You need to find them help — and fast.

Does Your Child Need Alcohol Rehab?

Research shows most people with alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism, can benefit from treatment, no matter how severe the problem is. Addiction is a medical disease, and while there is no cure for addiction, treatment and alcohol rehabilitation can teach your teen how to manage their addiction so they can grow into a successful, sober adult.

Start by talking to your doctor, who can help determine whether inpatient or outpatient drug rehab. If you don’t have a family doctor, or would rather speak to someone anonymously, call the recovery advisors at our helpline. These conversations are always free, confidential and have no strings attached. We know how hard making this first step can be — social stigma teaches us addiction is a shameful condition — but the reality is, addiction is a disease and is no one’s fault. With the right treatment, your teen can get better. Let us help you by giving us a call. We are always happy to listen, answer questions, or talk through rehab options with you.

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