Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence are not only adult problems -- they also affect a significant number of teenagers and young adults between the ages of 12 and 20, even though drinking under the age of 21 is illegal. The average age when a youth first tires alcohol is 11 years for boys and 13 years for girls. According to research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, adolescents who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21.
It has been estimated that over three million teenagers are out-and-out alcoholics. Several million more have a serious drinking problem that they cannot manage on their own. The three leading causes of death for 15- to 24-year-olds are automobile crashes, homicides and suicides -- alcohol is a leading factor in all three.
Young adults are still drinking at rates, which are incredibly high. This coincides with adolescent developmental stages and usually is coupled with the need to individuate - to become his or her "own person." All generations go through this. We need to form our own identity and sense of independence as we prepare to go out into the world. In an alcoholic family this is difficult because of the need to control a problem which is so uncontrollable. One of the major tasks of the family is to balance the need to control so that it is purposeful and fair.
Alcohol is a drug, as surely as cocaine and marijuana are, and for many of our country's young people, alcohol is the number one drug of choice. In fact, teens use alcohol more frequently and heavily than all other illicit drugs combined. While some parents may feel relieved that their teen is "only" drinking, it's important to remember that alcohol is a powerful, mood-altering drug.
Not only can alcohol affect the mind and body in unpredictable ways, but teens lack the judgment and coping skills to handle alcohol wisely. Some of the catastrophic results of teen drinking include:
- Significant brain development continues through adolescents. A recent study by the National Institute of Health presents the first concrete evidence that protracted, heavy alcohol use can impair brain function in adolescents, causing, in many cases, irreversible damage.
- Alcohol-related traffic accidents are a major cause of death and disability among teens. Alcohol use also is linked with the deaths of young people by drowning, fire, suicide and homicide.
- Teens who use alcohol are more likely to become sexually active at earlier ages, to have sexual intercourse more often, and to have unprotected sex more than teens who do not drink.
- Young people who drink are more likely than others to be victims of violent crime, including rape, aggravated assault, and robbery.
- Teens who drink are more likely to have problems with school work and school conduct.
- An individual who begins drinking as a young teen is four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than someone who waits until adulthood to use alcohol.
The message is clear: Alcohol use is very risky business for young people. And the longer a teenager delays alcohol use, the less likely they are to develop any problems associated with it.
Could My Teenager Develop a Drinking Problem?
Teenagers at highest risk for alcohol-related problems are those who:
- Begin using alcohol or other drugs before the age of 15
- Have a parent who is a problem drinker or an alcoholic
- Have close friends who use alcohol and/or other drugs
- Have been aggressive, antisocial, or hard to control from an early age
- Have experienced childhood abuse and/or other major traumas
- Have current behavioral problems and/or are failing at school
- Have parents who do not support them, do not communicate openly with them, and do not keep track of their behavior or whereabouts
- Experience ongoing hostility or rejection from parents and/or harsh, inconsistent discipline
The more of these experiences a teenager has had, the greater the chances that he or she will develop problems with alcohol. Having one or more risk factor does not mean that your child definitely will develop a drinking problem. It does suggest, however, that you may need to act now to help protect your teenager from later problems.
Warning Signs of a Drinking Problem
The following behaviors may indicate an alcohol or other drug problem, but it's important to note that some also reflect normal teenage growing pains. Experts believe that a drinking problem is more likely if you notice several of these signs at the same time, if they occur suddenly, and if some of them are extreme in nature:
- Mood changes: flare-ups of temper, irritability, and defensiveness
- School problems, including poor attendance, low grades, and/or recent disciplinary action
- Rebelling against family rules
- Switching friends, along with a reluctance to have you get to know the new friends
- A "nothing matters" attitude, for example sloppy appearance, a lack of involvement in former interests, and general low energy
- Finding alcohol in your child's room or backpack, or smelling alcohol on his or her breath
- Physical or mental problems: memory lapses, poor concentration, bloodshot eyes, lack of coordination, or slurred speech
If you think your teenager may be in trouble with drinking, you can protect them from years of pain by seeking advice from a professional specializing in alcohol problems as soon as possible. The life you save may be your child's.