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The Dangers of Teenage Alcoholism

Why Teenage Alcoholism Is Dangerous

There is a vast amount of documentation regarding the dangers involved with teen alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse can lead to deterioration of the brain and loss of memory, which carries a heavy impact on teenagers. Since teenage brains are not fully developed, the effects of alcohol use are very unique. The brain damage they experience cannot be reversed. In the interest of preventing this irreversible damage, parents who are facing the struggle of raising a teenage child who abuses alcohol must seek an adolescent drug detox program post haste.

Stats on Teen Alcohol Use

The drug most commonly abused by U.S. youth is alcohol, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Despite the fact that it is illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to consume alcohol, 11% of alcohol consumption in the United States is comprised by those between the ages of 12 and 20. Binge drinking is also a prevalent issue among teens, and a 2017 Youth Behavior Risk Surveillance System shows a reported ⅓ of seniors in high school had abused alcohol in the previous 30 days.

When teens are exposed to alcohol use at such a young age, it has a profound influence on their social development and future endeavors. Some of the effects alcohol use can have on adolescents include:

  • High risk of hangovers and related maladies
  • Developmental disorders, including effects on the brain
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities, and other disruptions to social development
  • Rape and loss of inhibitions regarding sexual activity
  • Criminal activity such as DUI and OWI, as a result of alcohol use
  • Missing school, and poor academic performance

In addition to these issues, adolescent drinking has been linked to developing an alcohol abuse problem that follows into adulthood. The highest risk group among teens is those who engage in binge drinking. Individuals who experience an alcohol abuse problem often need clinically supervised alcohol detox and withdrawal.

The unfortunate reality is that teenagers who engage in drinking often tend to partake in other risky behaviors. Alcohol poisoning and damaging side effects of drinking are common among teenage drinkers who binge drink and feel pressure to imbibe alcohol with friends. These peers are often afraid to reach out for help in emergencies, because they are breaking the law and don’t want to deal with the consequences.

How Teenage Brains Are Affected by Alcohol

The negative side effects of drinking among teens are innumerable, but one of perhaps the greatest concerns is how drinking affects teenage brain development. Alcohol use causes an interruption of communication between brain cells and the nervous system throughout their bodies. Ethanol, which is the main active component of alcohol, suppresses nervous system activities. The noticeable effect of this activity is the sluggish and lethargic appearance that people exhibit when they are intoxicated. Permanent damage to a brain that is still developing is much more prevalent than it is in adults.

The Hippocampus

The limbic system is one of the primary systems in the brain that contains the hippocampus, which is essential to emotional regulation, learning, and memory. Extended alcohol use among teenagers has been linked to a reduction of up to 10% in the size of the hippocampus. Its vulnerability to permanent damage is highest during this stage of physical development, wherein alcohol may actually poison nerve cells. The damage that the hippocampus suffers during this stage in life affects the teen’s recall ability during academic activity and can have a lasting impact that affects job performance in the future.

The Brain’s Prefrontal Cortex

Brain Development is Limited in Teens that Drink

As we grow from infancy to adulthood, the brain begins developing in the back and moves toward the front. Newborns can’t see very far because their occipital lobe is still in development. The brain continues to grow throughout childhood, and a great deal of the rear part of the brain is fully developed by the time the child reaches adolescence. The prefrontal cortex, however, is still developing at this stage, and goes through the most significant changes during the teenage years. This part of the brain is essential to responsible decision making, impulse control, planning, and judgement.

The prefrontal cortexes in teenagers who drink are smaller than those of individuals in the same age group who don’t consume alcohol. In addition to this, disruptions in the physical development of the brain during this time are caused by alcohol, which results in poor cognitive abilities and limited problem solving skills.

How Brain Damage Can Affect Development

One of the most distressing factors regarding brain development in teenagers who drink alcohol is that the changes the brain suffers are permanent. Heavy drinking while developing as a teen affects the functions of the brain that control their ability to absorb and apply information, form and recall memories, regulate emotions, and make calculated decisions. This goes far beyond the issues teens face in the academic arena. When adolescents partake in heavy drinking, they put themselves at a greater risk of developing substance abuse problems like alcoholism. They are also at a much higher risk of being involved in motor vehicle accidents and other activities that cause them to sustain physical injuries.

Alcohol Use Disorder in Adolescence

There are many effects that alcohol abuse may have on teens. One of the most obvious is that adolescents partake in alcohol use as a type of “novelty seeking.” As teenagers, individuals are exploring various different ways to test their boundaries as they get ready to “fly the nest”. The second factor of note is peer pressure. This is the social influence that causes most young people to drink for the first time. In today’s atmosphere of “challenges” on social media, this type of pressure is especially prevalent. Many people look at teenage drinking as simple experimentation, but they fail to realize the long-term effects that this behavior, even limited exposure, can have on a teen’s probability of deteriorating into alcohol abuse disorder.

If you are the parent of a teen who is abusing alcohol, you may be in the dark because your child will likely never tell you voluntarily. Due to their inclination to hide their drinking, consider these signs that they may be consuming alcohol:

  • Quitting extracurricular activities
  • A sudden and total lack of interest in social activity, melancholy, and moodiness
  • Drastic changes in grades or behavior
  • Hiding school absences
  • More difficulty than normal with waking and getting ready for school in the morning

Since teenagers are notoriously hard to read, it is often difficult for parents to identify alcohol use disorders at first. Keep in mind, though, that a parent’s intuition that something serious is going on is often correct. When parents are dealing with teenage addiction to drugs and alcohol, it is terribly difficult, but when parents intervene and attempt to change the behavior, they can keep the damage to a minimum and help their child find a path to recovery.

How to Avoid Enabling Teens

Avoid Enabling Teens with Alcohol Abuse

When parents are facing the dilemma of teenage alcoholism, they must be aware of ways to avoid enabling a drug addict child. The problem that most parents encounter when their child develops an addiction to alcohol as a teenager is that they can’t differentiate between helping their teen and enabling them. The difference between these two concepts is greatly influential on the situation. To help a child, the parents must engage in activity that demonstrably pulls the teen away from their alcohol abuse and moves them into recovery.

Helping a rebellious child can prove to be very difficult, as they will often resist the help that loved ones attempt to offer. It is important to not give up on the child, though, as this help is necessary for them to recover from their addiction. The concept that often gets confused with helping the teen is called enabling. When parents engage in these types of behavior, it makes the teen’s maintenance of their alcohol habit easier.

The way enabling behaviors manifest is varied in every circumstance. In most cases, the term involves any intervening from parents that effectively makes it easier for the teenager to maintain their alcohol abuse disorder and avoid the negative consequences that arise. Behavior that can be classified as enabling includes:

  • Taking on basic cleaning chores for the child. Many children have tasks that they are expected to take care of while living at home, ranging from taking out the trash to doing their own laundry. These responsibilities often tend to fall by the wayside as teens progress in their alcoholism. If this occurs, parents should not do these chores for their children. They need to see the consequences of the choices they make, such as having to wear dirty clothes to school and when spending time with friends.
  • Lying to protect the child’s reputation. When a teenager begins abusing alcohol, they often begin missing social gatherings, family events, and school functions. It is essential to recovery that people in the adolescent’s life see the fact that the teen is missing these events due to their alcohol habit. Oftentimes, out of embarrassment over their teen’s alcohol addiction, parents will lie to avoid the shame they feel, but this only acts to prolong confrontation of the issue and hides the teen’s condition from influential figures in their life.
  • Keeping alcohol in an accessible place. Although alcohol is legal for parents over the age of 21 to purchase and consume, parents with teenage children who abuse alcohol should avoid keeping any in the house. If they choose to have alcohol at home, it should be safely locked away from the teenager’s reach; either in a securely locked liquor cabinet, or in a locked space in a bedroom. It is vital for a parent to use any means available to keep an addicted child from maintaining their habit.
  • Giving money to the teen. One of the biggest obstacles that teenagers face in procuring alcohol is purchasing it, as they are not legally of age. Sadly, many adults are willing to buy alcohol for teenagers, and they become quite adept at finding these adults. When a parent gives cash to a teen with a drinking problem, it is an enabling behavior akin to going out and purchasing the teen’s alcohol themselves.
  • Making excuses to the school and educators for the teenager. A prime example of making an excuse for a teen alcoholic is telling the school they are home sick when in fact the teen is hungover or intoxicated.

When a teen’s drinking problem drives them to engage in dangerous and illegal behaviors, they must accept responsibility by experiencing the consequences that arise. Sometimes this serves as a sort of “rock bottom” and can compel an adolescent to seek recovery. When parents intervene on behalf of their children, they truly want to help, but the reality is that they are keeping their children from learning about the consequences of their behavior, again prolonging the addiction.

The challenge that parents of teenage alcoholics find to be one of the most taxing is the painful act of confronting the teen about their problem. They tend to fear that they are causing their child more pain. Recovery, however, is often a painful process and parents need to understand that they must be realistic about facing the issue.

How to Confront Your Teen With Their Alcohol Abuse Problem

Confronting a Teen About Alcohol Abuse

When you fear that your teenager may have an alcohol use disorder, the best course of action is to address the issue head-on. Parents of children who have drug and alcohol abuse problems offer the following tips:

  • Show compassion and empathy. Let your child know that you know how challenging the teenage years can be. Explain to them that all people face struggles that may feel overwhelming, but drugs and alcohol are not an appropriate or healthy way to get through the issues they are facing. Teens are more likely to be open to their parents if trust is established in the parent/child relationship.
  • Don’t judge. When concerned parents question their teenager in a critical or threatening tone, the child almost always shuts them out. Frame questions in a way that they express your concern in a neutral, loving manner.
  • Confront the issue. The method of approach when confronting a child about their alcohol abuse problem is crucial to ensuring effective results. Parents should educate themselves about the specific strategy to carry out an intervention, as teenagers are likely to resist the very idea that they have a problem.

Drinking during the teenage years places teens in a vulnerable state that can result in permanent brain damage. For this reason, parents must address the issues quickly and directly. To help children reach their full potential as teenagers and in life, parents must intervene as soon as a problem becomes evident.

Expose Children to the Signs of Alcohol Abuse

Parents often feel lost when they are trying to decide how to confront their teenager about their potential alcohol addiction. It is obvious that the problem has to be stopped before it gets worse, but the difficulty of beginning the very painful conversation is overwhelming. The teen’s recovery is dependent upon this crucial first step towards recovery.

It is a good practice to discuss alcohol abuse and its consequences honestly and openly with teenagers, as it can help to stop a potential problem in its tracks. Some parents find these conversations to be awkward and uncomfortable but keeping lines of communication open can help guarantee that a teen knows what the consequences of drinking at a young age entail. If a teenager has already developed an alcohol abuse disorder, it is unfortunately too late for these talks and time for an intervention.

How Does an Intervention Work?

In an intervention, parents, friends, and relatives of a teenage alcoholic assemble to confront the teen. This is not meant to be aggressive or threatening, but instead a gathering to let the teenager know in a compassionate way that there is help available for them. It is vital to inform the teen that all enabling behaviors are going to stop. The people participating in an intervention also explain to the teen how their drinking problem has negatively affected their lives and offer support as they encourage the child to enter a recovery treatment program.

It is wise to seek professional help when organizing an intervention, as emotions tend to run high and a mediator is beneficial. Painful issues will arise during the meeting, and the conversation may lead to the eruption of arguments. If you are the parent of a teen who has been abusing drugs or alcohol and are concerned about potentially permanent damage they may suffer, a professional intervention is often the best way to handle the situation.

Maryland Recovery can advise parents and help to organize custom interventions for teenagers who are abusing alcohol. Please reach out to our professional staff at (877) 958-9370 if you are concerned about your teenager and need professional advice.

Reviewed by Christopher Schwartfigure MS, LGPC, CAC-AD

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