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Teens and Alcohol: The Risks

With the continued raising of awareness related to teen abuse of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, Ecstasy, and prescription pills, some parents may feel relieved to discover that their teenager is “only” drinking alcohol. However understandable, this attitude is decidedly misguided, and ignores the reality that alcohol is a dangerous drug that has the potential to inflict considerable harm on individuals who misuse or abuse it.

Young people who use alcohol are not only breaking the law, but putting themselves at risk for developing a number of health, developmental, social, and emotional setbacks – problems that can be life-altering and, in some cases, literally life-ending.

The first thing that parents need to remember is that alcohol is a drug; thus, a teenager who is abusing alcohol is, by definition, participating in drug abuse. As with almost every drug that is abused for recreational purposes, alcohol affects both the mind and the body – a particularly dangerous scenario in cases of young people whose minds and bodies are both undergoing crucial phases of development.

The following are just a few of the many catastrophic consequences that can result from the abuse of alcohol by children, adolescents, and teenagers:

  • The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has reported that traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for American teenagers. And according to an NHTSA fact sheet, alcohol plays a role in many of these crashes. In 2003, more than one third of the drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 who were killed in fatal crashes in had been drinking, and 25 percent of these impaired drivers had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08 percent (the legal limit in most states) or above.
  • A study that was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) documented the existence of impaired brain function in adolescents who had engaged in chronic heavy abuse of alcohol. Some of this damage, the NIH report indicated, may be irreversible.
  • Multiple studies have shown that teens who abuse alcohol are more likely to engage in sex at younger ages, have sexual intercourse more often, and engage in unprotected sex at a higher rate than teens who don’t drink.
  • People who begin to drink alcohol before they turn 15 are four times more likely to develop alcoholism later in life than are those who wait until they are of legal age to have their first drink.

These and other statistics send a clear and consistent message: Using alcohol is a considerably risky endeavor for young people – but the longer they delay their exposure to alcohol, the greater their chances of living a life that is free from the damage than can result from alcohol abuse.

Risk Factors for Youth Drinking Problems

No child is immune from the risk of becoming a problem drinker, but certain youth are much more likely to have difficulties related to alcohol. The following factors raise a person’s risk of developing an addiction to or dependence upon alcohol:

  • First use of alcohol or other drugs before one’s 15th birthday
  • Having a parent with a drinking problem, or associating with friends who abuse alcohol or other drugs.
  • Having been exposed to aggression, conflict, and violence related to a parent’s use of alcohol.
  • Experiencing problems in school, displaying behavior disorders, or having been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused as a child.
  • Having experienced continued hostility, rejection, or overly harsh discipline by one’s parents.

Again, no one sign indicates that a child will (or will not) develop a dependence upon alcohol – but the more risk factors a person has, the higher the likelihood that he will struggle with alcohol at some point in his life. Being aware of these risk factors before a problem occurs can help teens and parents take the necessary steps to mitigate their influence.

Youth Drinking: Warning Signs

The very nature of the adolescent and teen years is one of change and transition, and the majority of youth exhibit behaviors that cause concern among their parents. Thus none of the following signs are absolute proof that a young person has a drinking problem – but the presence of several of these symptoms (or extreme instances of one) could indicate that a closer look into the child’s behavior is called for:

  • Mood swings, including rapid temper “flare-ups” and increased irritability and defensiveness.
  • Problems in school (such as falling grades, dwindling attendance, and behavior issues) – especially in children who had previously experienced academic success.
  • Abandonment of old friends, and associations with new peers that the youth refuses to introduce to parents or other family members.
  • Heightened displays of secrecy and furtive behavior, such as refusing to divulge whereabouts or spending long periods of time behind locked doors.
  • A lack of interest in events, activities, and topics that the youth previously enjoyed, such as sports, hobbies, or music.
  • Memory problems, slurred speech, blurred/bloodshot eyes, and an inability to concentrate

Parents who think their child may be abusing alcohol are advised to act “too soon” rather than too late. There’s no danger in investigating a perceived problem that turns out to be nonexistent – but delaying action when professional help is needed could be extremely detrimental.

Keeping Your Child Safe from Alcohol

Regardless of what a parent might hope, eventually almost every child finds herself in a situation where alcohol is accessible. To help your teenager resist the pressure to drink, help her develop strategies ahead of time, and talk to her about how to say “no,” who to call for help, and why peer pressure can be so detrimental to her growth and development.

Adolescence can be a confusing, even dangerous time. But preparing your child for the challenges he may face will not only help keep him safe, but will also strengthen the parent-child bonds and facilitate the continued open and honest communication that is at the core of every healthy family.

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