Teenagers & Alcohol Abuse: An In-Depth Guide For Those Who Care

Alcohol use among teens is a widespread health problem in the US. More than 17 million people aged 12 or older have abused alcohol in 2014, with less than one in ten receiving adequate treatment for their addiction. Most teenagers don’t possess the ability to fully comprehend the implications alcohol abuse brings along. Oftentimes, they will partake in drinking activities with their friends without understanding the immense health and safety risks they’re exposing themselves to.

If out of control, underage drinking can prompt teenagers to make impulsive decisions and inhibit their rational thinking, causing them to sit behind the wheel when intoxicated, or engage in fights and risky sexual relations. As a result, dangerous behavior stemming from alcohol consumption damages countless young lives every year, sometimes leading to fatal outcomes.

However, there are certain steps which parents, school personnel, and communities can take to identify and prevent underage drinking in order to reduce and eradicate the tragic numbers. By educating themselves on the various risk factors which contribute to the outset of alcohol use and learning about preventative methods, parents and teachers alike can step in to help the teens. A word of advice or an intervention from those close to teenagers could mean a difference between life and death.

This guide aims to close up on the issue of alcohol abuse among teenagers and outline various ways in which we, as a community, can help them lead more healthy, addiction-free lives. It is never too late to turn over a new leaf and learn how to enjoy life without having to reach for a drink. Especially when there’s so much time ahead of you.

Alcohol Abuse Statistics among US Teenagers

It’s almost ironic that in a country with the highest minimum legal drinking age, alcohol is the most widely abused substance among teenagers. In the US, alcohol takes 4,300 young lives every year and set the country’s budget back by a staggering $24 billion in 2010. Let us not lie ourselves. Most of us have had our first drink in college or high school. But there’s a clear line between occasional, responsible drinking and excessive, life-destructive use of alcohol.

Pinpointing the root of the epidemic to a single cause is near impossible. Bad parenting, personal circumstances, peer pressure and media portrayal all come into play when it comes to alcohol use. The growing problem provokes a chain reaction and creates a vicious circle which is difficult to break. A 2015 survey found one in three high school students have engaged in social drinking in the last 30 days, 18% of which participated in binge drinking and 20% in drunk-driving.

Today, American teens start early. The same survey found one in five teenagers aged 12-20 took part in underage drinking.

An average boy will start drinking at 11, while the starting age for girls is 13. If not addressed, their habit will almost certainly cause:

The Difference Between Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism

Even though alcohol abuse and alcoholism are terms which are frequently used interchangeably, they do not have the same meaning. The easiest way to grasp the two is to think of alcohol abuse as a predecessor of alcoholism. What this means is that a teenager who abuses alcohol doesn’t necessarily have to be addicted to the substance. In fact, the government’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports nine out of ten excessive drinkers are not alcoholics.

Alcohol AbuseAlcoholism
Excessive drinking of alcohol with an ability to stop if necessaryThe individual is addicted to alcohol, after the period of abstinence relapses occur
Social, personal, legal, and family problems due to alcohol useWithdrawal symptoms when trying to stop, including tremors, nausea, anxiety, and intense cravings for alcohol
Alcohol consumption even in situations considered dangerousStrong uncapable cravings for alcohol, visiting social events involving drinking only

It is important to note, that although alcohol abuse doesn’t involve physical and psychological dependence, the transition between the two is short and almost guaranteed if the teenager is persistent in his or her habit. If you suspect your teenager is dependent on alcohol, consider scheduling an appointment with a trained professional before enrolling them in an alcohol treatment facility.

Teens & Alcohol - Why Drink in the First Place?

We all know how teenagers are. After all, we’ve been through it ourselves. Stepping into adulthood is a big deal and in order to feel more accepted, young adults try to break free of parental control by breaking curfews, shutting off communication channels, and oftentimes mimicking adult behavior. This can be as harmless as wearing makeup or as dangerous as reaching for a drink at an early age.

Parents should approach the issue with delicacy and understanding; at this stage, teenagers are under a lot of developmental stress which can lead to changes in mood and emotional instability. Factors which could spark a drinking problem in teenagers are numerous and most often include:

Family history plays a major role in alcohol abuse. If a teenager’s parent or sibling is an alcoholic, chances of alcohol abuse skyrocket.

Likewise, if there’s a culture of alcohol use within the family, a teenager is more likely to reach for a drink him or herself, as alcohol is not only more readily available, but its consumption is firmly accepted. If you choose to drink, do it responsibly and out of sight. The last thing you want is your teenager thinking it’s acceptable to have a couple of glasses of wine before bed, too.

Same goes for the teenager’s social circles. If an individual is ‘hanging out’ with friends who tend to drink, he or she will be more exposed to alcohol abuse. Teenagers tend to binge drink a lot more than adults do as their impulse control is still maturing and prevents them from making rational decisions. If your son or daughter socializes with friends who tend to binge drink often, chances are he or she will begin to partake in those same activities.


Never underestimate the power of mass media in shaping perception of alcohol abuse. As an acceptable activity, drinking is a theme heavily portrayed in numerous films, music, and advertisements. More than 60% of teenagers recall seeing a daily alcohol advertisement on TV in 2011. It goes without saying this contributes to a more accepting attitude towards drinking among teenagers.

Researchers believe teenagers are especially prone to drinking not only because of the associated factors which affect this age group but also blame biology for the growing epidemic. Specifically, it is the pleasure center which scientists believe is the main culprit for an early outset of alcohol abuse. In teenagers, this region of the brain develops far faster than their ability to make sound decisions.

And while most of those who drink during their teenage years will stop once they take on serious responsibilities such as job duties, relationship challenges, etc, some will take their addiction onto the next level and it will become a key part of their functioning life. CDC research suggests those who start drinking early have an increased likelihood of battling alcohol abuse in their later years.

There are many more factors which can nudge a teenager toward drinking, including gender, existing health disorders, and race and ethnicity. Whatever the reason, we can conclude teenagers are particularly vulnerable to alcohol abuse because of their developmental phase and personal circumstances which act as a breeding ground for their dangerous habit.

How to Spot a Teenager with an Alcohol Abuse Problem?

As we’ve just established, teenagers are at a particularly vulnerable phase of their life. It’s exactly this rapid evolving that’s making it so hard to spot certain psychological and physical changes caused by an alcohol abuse. General feelings of irritability, an increased need for privacy, changes in mood and behavior, as well as emotional instability are traits which accompany both adolescent years and alcoholism.

However, there are other clear signs which will indicate a teenager is facing an alcohol abuse problem. These include:

As you can see, all of these telltale signs blend with typical signs of adolescence and it can be extremely difficult to tell a difference between an average teenager and a teenager with a drinking problem. It is therefore crucial that parents talk to their children about their changes to determine whether there’s an underlying alcohol abuse problem in need of addressing.

Dangers and Side Effects of Underage Drinking

Unfortunately, side effects and associated risks of underage drinking are far greater than in those who abuse alcohol in adult years. This is mainly because teenagers are undergoing vital physical and psychological changes which alcohol can inhibit and disrupt.

What’s more, as teenagers are more prone to risk-taking during their growth followed by erratic behavior, they’re more likely to get themselves into trouble by careless drinking. The dangers accompanying underage alcohol abuse are many and we have outlined the most prominent ones below.

Incomplete Brain Development & Physical Dangers

Underage drinking is associated with a plethora of cognitive disruptions. Parents whose children engage in excessive drinking have a lot more to worry about than missed homework and absence from school. Namely, public health experts warn underage drinkers are at increased risk of developing cellular damage to the hippocampus region and the forebrain.

This age group, according to researchers, is more prone to suffering from alcohol-related brain damage than adults who are on the same boat. To make matters worse, memory problems, as well as difficulties with attention have been linked to teenagers who drink to excess. And to top it all off, physical consequences including alcohol poisoning and frequent hangovers take a heavy toll on the lives of both teenagers and their families.

Alcohol-Related Traffic Accidents

Because of their lack of driving experience and inability to at times recognize dangerous driving conditions, teenager alcohol-related traffic accidents are on the rise. The fact that teenagers are at a higher risk of crashing their vehicle of all blood alcohol concentration level groups adds even more fuel to the fire.

The alarming figures reveal 20% of high school students had been involved in drink-driving in 2015.

Increased Chances of Adulthood Addiction & Associated Conditions

If a teenager starts drinking at an early age, he or she risks developing a full-blown addiction later in life. An adult who has been a heavy drinker in their adolescent years and has continued to abuse alcohol will have a higher chance of developing serious, life-threatening diseases such as oral cancer, liver cirrhosis, and stroke.

Moreover, when dependent on alcohol, individuals have a particularly hard time in reaching and sustaining sobriety. One of the reasons is the extremely harsh withdrawal symptoms which come along with physical dependence and include severe tremors, nausea, strong cravings, and more.

Risky Sexual Behavior and Secondary Effects

Also, as unfortunate as it is, teenage drinking affects those close to the affected individual, too. Innocent people are at afflicted every day due to alcohol abuse among teenagers who throw loud and disorderly parties, engage in violent and destructive activities, or take part in risky sexual behaviors, such as unprotected or unwanted sex, sexual relations with multiple partners, and more. The latter can lead to unplanned pregnancy, contracting of infectious diseases, and sexual assault charges.

How to Prevent Young Teen Alcohol Abuse?

Raising your child brings along many stresses, but raising a teenager can be particularly difficult. Often, their behavior can be frustrating, to say the least, and can leave those who guide them drained at the end of the day. Parents are meant to set an example for their children and should be there to spark a discussion about alcohol use as early as possible. Here are four useful tips which may nudge your teenager to delay drinking.

Talk With Your Teen

Try to start an open and honest conversation about drinking as early as possible. Make sure you mention the dangers of drinking we’ve outlined above so that your child is aware of what he or she is getting into each time they consume alcohol. You may actually end up surprised your teen will be interested to hear your thoughts out and may be relieved to have someone to turn to with whatever is on their mind.

Your conversation should be full of open-ended, non-judgemental questions whose answers you should listen to with minimum interruption. Keep your tone positive; if there’s a history of alcohol abuse in your family, make sure you mention the destructive consequences it brought along. Take deep breaths, maintain an objective approach, and most importantly, let your teenager know you care about them – their health, their academic success, and other spheres of their lives which alcohol use could jeopardize.

Bring yourself closer to your teenager’s world. Try to get to know who they’re socializing with in order to better understand their daily lives. When it comes to an early alcohol use prevention, communication is the first and most important step you can take. It will allow you to discuss the topic more comfortably in future and approach whatever problems your teen is facing from a personal standpoint.

Make Sure There are Boundaries in Place

Making clear rules is as important as being supportive and close to your teenager. Let them know excessive drinking will not be tolerated and follow up with a punishment for rule-breaking. It can be challenging to keep up with this process but it will also mean your teen will respect you more and will delay his or her drinking for longer.

Set an Example

You’re your teenager’s prime role model, even if you’re unaware of it. If you’re struggling with alcohol abuse or are a frequent drinker, your teen is likely to follow your lead and develop similar tendencies in his or her adolescent years.Teenagers with binge-drinking parents are twice as likely to engage in binge drinking themselves. If they see you consume alcohol for pleasure without negative consequences, what is stopping them from doing the same?

Always be There for Them

Let your teenager know you’re available if they need help or get themselves in trouble by drinking too much. Knowing their parent is only a phone call away could prevent the teen from getting into a car drunk, riding with a drunken driver, or staying up late drinking

Making sure your teenager never ends up with an alcohol abuse disorder requires hard work and plenty of attention. It’s important you talk to your teens, retain a positive image, set boundaries, and help them in times of their need. By taking these steps, you will create a relationship with your teenager based on trust, mutual respect, and care.

How to Talk to Your Teen About Alcohol?

As we discussed above, a parent-child communication based on trust is essential in preventing an early outset of alcohol abuse. If you’re confused as to how to start a conversation in the first place, make sure you follow the following tips which will allow you to touch upon the delicate issue without upsetting or distancing your teen. Make no mistake though, talking about the subject of alcohol use won’t be an easy task. Your teen may try to avoid the topic, or shut him or herself off before you even get to begin the discussion.

Think beforehand about the issues which are concerning you and which you want to talk about. Give substantial forethought to the ways in which your teen might respond or react and ensure you find the right time and place to relax and bring up this sensitive issue.

It’s very important you remember not to rush it, for example, you can begin the conversation during a family dinner and then follow up on it after a couple of weeks. Don’t worry, your teen won’t forget about your chat. The more time you spend discussing alcohol abuse, the greater your chances of it developing into an ongoing conversation.

Remain open-minded. Whatever you do, don’t turn this into an interview or a lecture. Make sure it’s a two-way interaction with plenty of open-ended questions. You’re here to find out your child’s views on alcohol use and to provide useful, constructive insight into the matter.

Don’t tell stories of heavy drinking in your teenage days – this will only make the matter worse. More importantly, don’t try to be cool or down to earth by buying your teen alcohol. Rather, ask them if they know what alcohol can do their bodies and lives. Ask them if they know it’s a strong central nervous stimulant with intoxicating and impairing effects on cognitive and behavioral processes.

Let them know there’s very little difference between soft alcohol such as beer and wine and hard liquor such as vodka, whiskey, and tequila. Use this part of the conversation to bring all of the negative impacts alcohol can bring to your teen’s life.

Let them know you want them to avoid excessive drinking, not because you’re depriving them of fun, but because you care about their health and well-being. Remind them how drinking is not only illegal but also extremely dangerous at such a young age. At this point, you can mention the amount of alcohol-related traffic accidents and other hazardous activities that come along with drinking, including violent tendencies and risky sexual behavior.

Shatter the illusion of an unrealistic portrayal of alcohol in the media. This is another method which serves as a reality check for your teenager, and helps them understand the true effects of alcohol.

As you know, many TV films and advertisements show alcohol use in a delusive light. Sit down with your teen to watch a film or a commercial which shows young people having the time of their life while drinking and explain to the different ways in which alcohol affects people. Sometimes drinking invokes feelings of sadness, anger, and violence, rather than blissful and joyful states.

Finally, make it known to your teenager that his or her brain is still developing and that drinking alcohol can cause long-term intellectual damage and impair this maturing process. Also, tell them how underage drinking provides suitable breeding ground for the development of alcohol dependence in their adulthood years.

Getting Professional Help

If you’re suspecting your teen is battling alcohol abuse, intervene as soon as possible. Talk to them and other parents in order to nip the issue in the bud. Remember you’re not alone. In 2015 alone, over 7.7 million teenagers in the US admitted to having drunk alcohol far beyond ‘just a few sips’.

If, however, all individual and family interventions fail and your teen is facing a serious drinking problem, you may want to think about seeking professional help. Start with the school. If the school counselor, physician, or mental health professional cannot provide sufficient treatment, there are other forms of support and resources available to you. Your personal doctor or a local hospital staff should point you in the right direction and help find the right facility for your needs. Most common treatment options include:

  • An intervention by a trained professional, such as a psychiatrist or a psychologist
  • Participation in a substance abuse treatment program

For the latter, many factors will determine the right treatment facility for your teenager. These include the proximity to your home, the quality of treatment, insurance options, and so on. Find out a list of local rehab centers near you here. It’s important that, in these situations, you re-establish a connection with your teenager and let them know you care about their recovery. Frequent visits and strong support will help them go through the difficult process.