Easy access to alcohol, coupled with its widespread use and acceptance across age groups, make it challenging to keep it out of the hands of people who shouldn’t use it, including teenagers.

While teenage alcohol abuse is not new, it is still an ongoing public health issue that has even surfaced during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Alcohol use increased across populations during the crisis, as this National Public Radio article highlights, and one analysis published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that COVID-19 prompted some teenagers to use substances, including alcohol, to cope with the early months of the pandemic.

‘A Serious Public Health Problem’

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) calls underage drinking a serious public health problem in the United States, writing, “Alcohol is the most widely used substance of abuse among America’s youth, and drinking by young people poses enormous health and safety risks. The consequences of underage drinking can affect everyone—regardless of age or drinking status.”

Recent data from the Monitoring the Future Survey shows that alcohol use among U.S. teens has declined. According to the survey, “Lifetime, past year, and past month alcohol use and binge drinking continued to show significant five-year declines in 10th and 12th graders.” Binge drinking is the practice of drinking four to six alcoholic beverages in a two-hour period.

Even though teenage drinking rates have fallen in recent years, it is still significant that underage drinking remains an issue. Many young students will try alcohol at least once when it is clear they should avoid it for many reasons, including its effects on brain development.

Teenage Alcohol Abuse Affects the Developing Brain

The average teenager who experiments with alcohol may focus on surface things, such as how the substance makes them feel physically and emotionally. Drinking a beer or something stronger might make them more carefree, confident, giddy, or daring. They may drink to fit in socially with peers who also drink, or they may drink alone to deal with mental health issues, such as stress, anxiety, or depression.

While the reasons teens drink are nearly endless, it’s a safe bet that they are not thinking about the long-term effects or consequences of choosing to drink early. Many of these long-term effects can harm the body’s organs, including the brain.

During adolescence, the growth period between childhood and adulthood, the young brain is still developing, particularly the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain, located near the front of the organ, is responsible for reasoning, decision-making, and controlling impulsive behavior. This region of the brain will continue to grow until a person’s mid-20s, perhaps age 25.

Many changes are taking place in teenagers in nearly every facet of their lives, including their  physiology and psychology. This explains why some teen behavior is unpredictable, irrational, and risky. Add alcohol to what can be a turbulent period for young people, and it is easy to see how underage drinking is problematic.

The adolescent brain is wired to be risky as it develops, and some observers say this is why teenagers are open to experimenting with addictive substances, such as alcohol. The legal drinking age is 21 in the United States, but some people start long before that age, taking their first drink as young as elementary school or sometime in their teens.

Drinking before a person has matured poses serious dangers that young people are likely not thinking about. Repeated drinking can turn into problematic alcohol use for people of any age, which can lead to alcohol use disorder, a severe addiction to alcohol that will require professional treatment.

The Brain and Dopamine

No matter what drug someone uses or how, all substances can affect the body and the reward center of its brain. When an addictive substance, such as alcohol, saturates the reward system of a teenager’s brain, which is still developing, excessive substance use can make it challenging for the young person to return to their normal state.

The person may also feel the urge to drink more alcohol, as the brain remembers feeling good when they did. So, they will repeat that action over and over until they find they do not get the same pleasurable effects from drinking as they once did. In this case, they likely will drink more to achieve the initial effects. This is dangerous for several reasons. One of them is the person could be on their way to becoming addicted to alcohol, and if they stop use for a while and then return to using, they could overdose during their relapse.

Early Alcohol Use Can Bring Lifelong Health Problems

For young people, teenage alcohol abuse can create mental and physical health problems that last a lifetime. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains on a site geared toward teenagers that chronic alcohol use has short- and long-term consequences.

As it explains, the short-term consequences of intoxication include:

  • Having problems with motor coordination and decision-making
  • Dulling the senses so that a person is not aware of their behavior or their surroundings
  • Raising one’s chances of being hurt during a fall or another kind of injury
  • Engaging in risky behavior that poses a danger to a person, including drinking and driving, violent behavior, or unsafe sex

According to Verywell Mind, alcohol can also have long-term effects on regions of the cerebellum, which is located in the lower back of the brain, as well as the prefrontal cortex.

NIDA also writes that the long-term consequences of intoxication during the adolescent years can adversely affect how a person processes new information. Memory problems can also result from drinking in the early years.

Many people who drink during their adolescent years do not go on to develop AUD or struggle with alcohol use later in their lives. Still, teenagers overall are at greater risk of developing an alcohol addiction, and some are at higher risk because of factors that are unique to them.

If a teenager comes from a family with a history of alcoholism or substance use or has been exposed to unhealthy drinking habits in their environment while growing up, they could have a problem controlling their drinking later on if they start during the formative years.

If You Are a Parent Who Thinks Your Child May be Drinking

If you suspect for any reason that your teenager may be drinking alcohol, developing an addiction to it, or is addicted to it, you will need to know the signs to look for and how to approach them about the subject.

NIDA advises that the following are signs you should look for:

  • Changes in your child’s peer or friend group
  • Carelessness with grooming, appearance
  • Decline in academic performance
  • Skipping classes or missing classes
  • No interest in favorite activities
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits, patterns
  • Declining relationships with family, friends

Your teen may be exhibiting mood swings or wanting to withdraw from family and friends. NIDA also notes that parents attribute many of these changes to puberty or underestimate that their child has a substance use issue.

While the decision to use alcohol in this critical development phase is highly discouraged, there is nothing you can do to turn back the hands of time. You have to start where you are now.

Many parents feel a range of emotions when facing the fact that their child has a substance use disorder, from fear and guilt to flat-out denial. While this is understandable, the truth is your child could be in the process of developing a substance addiction that poses significant risks to their health and well-being for possibly the rest of their lives. The sooner you act, the faster you and your child can find suitable treatment for their alcohol use.

How to Talk to Your Teen

You might want to pick a time to talk to your teen, perhaps when they are not distracted. Psych Central also advises that you choose a time when your child is sober. The website advises that parents remain calm and direct when talking to their child and ask open-ended questions. They are also urged not to punish their child but instead remain supportive and find a recovery program as soon as possible.

Treatment For Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction is treatable with a combination of therapies and medication. The initial step for substance addiction treatment is medical detox. Facilities offer detoxification to help wean their patients off the substance they are using and remove other toxins from the body.

Medical professionals oversee this process 24/7 and monitor patients as they undergo substance withdrawal. The process is considered safer as patients withdraw from the substance and have support to manage uncomfortable to life-threatening symptoms. It also helps patients avoid relapse.

After detox, clients can receive therapy, counseling, and in some cases, medication-assisted treatment to help them overcome their substance dependence. Facilities that offer treatment for teenagers employ various types of counseling for young adults and their families, including cognitive behavioral therapy.

Teenagers are also advised to participate in aftercare programs that can encourage them in their sobriety. These programs include continued treatment and therapy at an outpatient program, sober living homes, and 12-step support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

If you are interested in the treatment options here at The Palm Beach Institute, give us a call today to learn how your child can start their recovery.

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