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No parent wants to ask the question, “Is my teen addicted to alcohol?” The only thing worse is getting the answer “yes”: that a teenaged child is indeed compulsively drinking and abusing alcohol despite the negative consequences. The words “teen” and “alcoholic” simply shouldn’t have to go together—ever—but sadly, more than half of America’s 20 million alcoholics say they started drinking as teens.
Teen Alcohol Abuse – Effects and Prevalence
Another reality is that teen alcohol abuse and its effects and prevalence constitute a “major public health challenge,” according to the National Institutes on Health. Here’s a breakdown of just what that challenge looks like and how serious it is—and, why knowing whether a teen has an alcohol problem is of urgent importance:
- Alcohol kills more teens worldwide than all other drugs combined.
- Teens who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to become alcoholics.
- Alcohol is the leading gateway drug to other more addictive substances. Young people who drink are 50 times more likely to use cocaine than young people who don’t drink, for example, according to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World.
- Alcohol abuse (excessive drinking that includes binge drinking and/or chronic heavy drinking) is the third leading cause of death in this country, and teens are especially vulnerable: 12 percent of 15-year-olds report binge drinking, and that percentage increases with adolescent age, so that by the age of 17, 25 percent of teens (one in four) report binge drinking.
- The earlier a child gets help and intervention for a drinking problem, the greater their chances of avoiding alcohol’s negative health consequences (which, as shown, can be fatal).
Teen Alcoholism – Risk Factors
As scary as it may be, giving at least some consideration to a child’s behavior around alcohol can benefit all parents, not just parents of “at-risk” teens. Yes, a teen engaging in other high-risk activities is more susceptible to alcoholism. So are adolescent children who have experienced:
- An underlying psychiatric condition or “dual diagnosis” like ADHD, anxiety or major depressive disorder, or conduct disorder
- Childhood behavioral problems such as hyper-aggression and hyper-impulsiveness
- A family history of alcoholism (which increases one’s genetic and biological propensity for alcoholism)
- A childhood trauma such as sexual or physical abuse or the witnessing of a violent event
- Greater peer pressure and bullying
- Frequent exposure to positive advertisements about alcohol
- Positive expectations about alcohol’s effects
These risk factors alone warrant parental concern about a child’s potential for becoming addicted to alcohol. Still, a kid who displays none of the above markers for a higher risk of alcoholism may still be suffering from alcohol abuse and its damaging effects—and the signs of trouble may not always be so obvious at home.
Teen Alcoholism – Warning Signs to Look for
That’s when being able to recognize the other potential signs of alcoholism and alcohol dependency can be especially helpful. Here are some things to look for:
- Academic or behavioral problems at school or work
- Temper flare-ups and greater irritability and defensiveness
- Delayed puberty
- Rebelling against family obligations and rules at home
- A lack of involvement in former hobbies or interests
- An increase in other risky behaviors, such as early and/or unprotected sex
- An experience of physical or sexual assault at a party
- An inability to recall what happened the night before (due to an alcohol-induced black-out, for example)
- Changes in personal hygiene and appearance (sloppier clothes, for example)
- A general malaise or checked-out attitude (expressions of “I don’t care” and “nothing matters”)
- A different set of friends and evasions of parental interest in who the new friends are
- Un-chaperoned partying and/or partying with an older crowd
- Legal problems (even one or more traffic tickets, for example)
- Otherwise unexplainable physical or mental problems (the more obvious being slurred speech and bloodshot eyes, but also poor concentration and memory issues)
- The presence of alcohol (in a desk or backpack) or the smell of alcohol on the breath
- Alcohol use that continues despite negative consequences
- An inability to go “cold turkey” despite trying
- Binge drinking or heavy drinking patterns
Teen Binge Drinking vs. Heavy Drinking
The last of the above warning signs, binge drinking or heavy drinking, needs more elaboration. Binge drinking for boys is five or more drinks in one sitting, and for girls, four or more drinks in one sitting. Heavy drinking equates with binge drinking on each of five or more days in the past month.
Teens who engage in one or both of these forms of excessive drinking typically don’t do so out in the open in front of parents, but they are much more likely to exhibit at least one or more of the other above warning signs. That’s just one more reason to know what the potential signs of alcoholism and alcohol abuse are, so that, if necessary, parents can get their child into treatment.