Underage drinking is considered a serious health issue in this country. Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance when it comes to American youth, despite the legal drinking age being set at 21. In fact, in 2015, more than 30% of teens reported they had consumed alcohol in the last month.
What is alcohol abuse?
Clearly, alcohol abuse amongst teens is prevalent. Alcohol abuse is defined as the habitual, or routine, misuse of alcohol. And because individuals under the age of 21 are not legally allowed to purchase or consume alcohol, any teen use could be considered “misuse.”
Risk factors for teen alcohol abuse
Moving from adolescence to young adulthood is a difficult time period for most teens. During this challenging time, many will experiment with alcohol at some point. Yet, some are more likely than others to develop an alcohol problem. Risk factors that might increase your teen’s chances of abusing alcohol include:
- Genetics – alcoholism can run in families, making it far more likely for children of alcoholics to develop a problem with drinking.
- Race/ethnicity – some racial groups, such as Native Alaskans and American Indians, have a higher risk of alcohol abuse and dependence.
- Trauma – research shows there is a strong correlation between alcohol abuse in teens and childhood trauma. Childhood trauma includes physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, along with experiences of witnessing violence.
- Parents/caregivers attitudes around alcohol – teens whose parents or primary caregivers hold permissive attitudes around alcohol, including lenient rules regarding alcohol use, are more likely to struggle with alcohol abuse
- Social pressure – teens whose friends, siblings, or peers use alcohol are more likely to feel the pressure to do so themselves. In many cases, alcohol helps teenagers feel like they “fit in.”
- Personality – for many, alcohol is a way to feel more comfortable and open in social situations.
- Mental illness – adolescents and teens who suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are at an increased risk of using alcohol as a way to cope.
Signs of alcohol abuse in teens
Unfortunately, even if your teen does not have any of the above-mentioned risk factors, there is still the possibility he or she may struggle with alcohol abuse. If you think your teen may be using alcohol, look for the following signs, as they are often indicators of teenage drinking.
- Decreased performance at school and other activities
- Erratic behavior –
- Changes in appearance – although it is not uncommon for teens to alter their appearance periodically, noticeable changes such as poor hygiene, significant weight gain or loss, or abnormal skin pallor may point to signs of alcohol abuse.
- Secretiveness – many teens that are abusing alcohol begin to lie, steal, isolate and engage in other sneaky behaviors.
- Sadness, irritability – although it is not uncommon for teens to experience general moodiness, if you notice persistent irritability or sadness, this could be a sign your teen is using alcohol
- Smell of alcohol on breath or clothing
Dangers of alcohol abuse in teens
It is vital to be aware of any physical, emotional, or behavioral changes in your teen that might point to alcohol abuse. Not only because he or she may be breaking the law, but also because of the other potential risks and dangers associated with teenage drinking, including:
- Erratic behavior – teens that abuse alcohol are more likely to flunk out of school, vandalize property, act out sexually, or run away from home.
- Depression – alcohol is considered a depressant, or a “downer.” Use over an extended period of time can contribute to the development of depression.
- Self-harm – teens who drink heavily (compared to those who do not) are three times more likely to act out in self-injurious ways.
- Death – car crashes, homicide, and suicide are the top three causes of death for teenagers. The common (and leading) factor in all three is alcohol use.
- Brain changes – because the teenage brain is still developing, alcohol use and abuse can cause significant effects. Research indicates alcohol impacts long-term memory and ability to retain new information.
If your teen is using alcohol, or you suspect he or she might be, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-HELP to get support and find out about treatment options.