Alcohol and Teen Drinking

alcohol abuseTeen drinking continues to be a major health problem in the United States. Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency affect a significant number of young people between the ages of 12 and 20. In fact, alcohol is the drug of choice among America’s youth and is used by more young people than tobacco or illegal drugs. When young people try alcohol, they often don’t realize the damaging effects drinking can have on their own lives, their families, and their communities.

Consider these facts on teen drinking

Most (81.4%) of the 4.3 million individuals who first began using alcohol during the past year were younger than age 21. Approximately 58.3% were younger than age 18. Facts on Underage Drinking, SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), 2013

In 2011, 33% of 8th graders and 70% of 12th graders had tried alcohol, and 13% of 8th graders and 40% of 12th graders drank during the past month. Monitoring the Future Survey 2011

About 5.9 million (15.3%) youth have reported binge drinking (defined as having five or more drinks on the same occasion), and 1.7 million (4.3%) reported being heavy drinkers (defined as having five or more drinks on the same occasion on each of 5 or more days in the past 30 days). Facts on Underage DrinkingSAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), 2013

A child who reaches age 21 without smoking, abusing alcohol or using drugs is virtually certain never to do so. Joseph A. Califano, Jr., The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University

How drinking affects young people

Alcohol affects brain development. The brain goes through rapid development and “wiring” changes during the ages of 12 to 21.  Alcohol use can damage this development that is essential to brain growth. Alcohol can damage two key brain areas:

  • The prefrontal area is responsible for thinking, planning, good judgment, decision-making, and impulse control. Damage from alcohol during adolescence can be long-term and irreversible.
  • The hippocampus is involved in learning and memory.  Frequent drinkers may never be able to catch up in adulthood since alcohol inhibits systems crucial for storing new information.

Dependence on alcohol and other drugs is associated with several mental health problems,  such as:

There is a higher risk of suicide for youth who drink alcohol. Alcohol use among adolescents is associated with considering, planning, attempting, and completing suicide. Alcohol impairs judgment and can enhance feelings of hopelessness and depression.

There is a strong link between teen drinking and both committing violence and being a victim of violence. Alcohol use can increase emotions and reduce self-control and the ability to process information and assess risks. This makes some young people more likely to resort to violence in confrontation. Also, the inability to recognize warning signs of danger can make young people easy targets. Alcohol use is involved in almost all violent crime on college campuses, including rape and dating violence. Alcohol and violence is also a part of youth gang culture.

Other risks and consequences of alcohol use include:

  • Death from alcohol poisoning
  • Alcohol-related car crashes and other unintentional injuries to self and others, such as burns, falls, and drowning
  • Legal problems, such as being arrested for driving or physically hurting someone while drunk
  • Unwanted, unplanned, and unprotected sexual activity
  • Disruption of normal physical growth and sexual development
  • Abuse of other drugs
  • School problems, such as truancy, poor or failing grades, and dropping out of school

With all the risks, why do young people drink?

As children mature, it’s natural for them to assert their independence, seek new challenges, and take risks. Other reasons young people drink alcohol include fitting in and being accepted by peers and trying to reduce the stress and problems in their lives  Easy access to alcohol also plays a role. Most young people get alcohol for free through older friends, family members, or find it at home.

Parents’ drinking behavior is associated with teen drinking. Children who were warned about alcohol by their parents and children who reported being closer to their parents were less likely to start drinking. Lack of parental support, monitoring, and communication are significantly related to frequency of drinking, heavy drinking, and drunkenness among adolescents. Harsh, inconsistent discipline and hostility or rejection toward children have also been found to significantly predict teen drinking and alcohol-related problems.

Help for Your Teen

The most common and effective way for an individual to combat his or her addictive behaviors is through a support group with guidance from a mental health professional who works with adolescents having substance abuse/addiction problems. Treatment should involve family members because family history often plays a role in the origins of teen drinking and successful treatment cannot take place in isolation.

Teens may need to go to a residential treatment program for help in recognizing and admitting their drinking problem, removing themselves from the friends they drink with, focusing on their healing and recovery, and learning how to have healthy relationships and a positive lifestyle.

The National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service provides a 24-hour free and confidential helpline, 800-662-HELP (4357), offering various resource information on mental health and/or substance use disorders, prevention, and recovery in English and Spanish. Through this service you can speak directly to a representative concerning alcohol and other drugs, request printed material on alcohol or other drugs, or obtain local substance abuse treatment referral information in your state.

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