Why Do Teenagers Drink Alcohol?
Being a teenager these days is hard, so it’s not surprising that many teens experiment with alcohol as an outlet for their stress. The pressure of trying to earn good grades, figuring out a post-high school future, navigating peer groups and social media and dealing with everyday life stressors can be a lot. Add in the extra stress of coping with distance learning and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s easy to see how teens can be overwhelmed. To understand why teenagers drink alcohol, you can learn from Alec, who started drinking at age 18 to cope with his anxiety.
Alec saw a psychiatrist who prescribed antidepressant medication, but Alec didn’t follow the doctor’s instructions. Alec began self-medicating with alcohol and drugs and stopped taking his prescribed medication. The alcohol and drugs made him more depressed and anxious; he fortunately found rehab and therapy.
Some teens don’t know how to express their worries or don’t have the support they need at home or in their friend group. Combined, it can build up to anxiety or depression if there’s no outlet for their emotions. It’s estimated that 80% of kids with an anxiety disorder and 60% of youth with depression don’t get the treatment they need. Instead, they may self-medicate in unhealthy ways. As clinician Jody Adewale said, teens end up being their own doctor and try to manage their mental health, and that can lead to problematic results.
Drinking alcohol is one of the most common ways teens self-medicate. Liquor is easily accessible compared to other substances, such as illicit drugs, and it’s relatively cheap. Chances are, they may know peers who have started drinking. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, roughly 58% of teens have tried drinking at least once by the time they are 18. Even more alarming, the institute states that about 90% of alcohol consumption for youth ages 12 to 20 is done during binge drinking (at least five drinks at once for boys and four drinks for girls). If this kind of behavior goes unchecked, it can lead to teenage alcoholism.
Alcohol may seem like an attractive option for teens looking to ease the pain of their anxiety or depression. Drinking brings on an initial rush of pleasure and excitement that blots out the bad feelings. Too much alcohol can cause a complete blackout. It’s easy to become addicted to alcohol and that can cause long-term problems. School and friendships suffer, there’s a higher risk of injuring themselves or others (which could also present legal issues) and teens who drink are more likely to experience anxiety and depressions—the very things they’re trying to avoid. Families concerned about teenage alcohol abuse should know the signs to look for and be aware of the effect drinking can have on a still-developing mind and body.
Signs, Symptoms and Effects of Teenage Drinking on the Brain
There are some warning signs parents should watch for if they suspect their teen is drinking alcohol:
- Performance in school gets worse (i.e., a drop in grades)
- Behavior changes (a normally obedient teen becomes rebellious or is disciplined for breaking rules at school)
- Truancy from school or calling in sick to their after-school job
- Withdrawal from friends, hobbies or extracurricular activities they used to enjoy
- Isolation from family members
- Mood swings
- The teen smells of alcohol or alcohol is missing from the home
- Increased secrecy (the teen locks the door to their room or sneaks out at night)
- More frequent illnesses, fatigue or behavior associated with hangovers
- The teen asks for money more often or resorts to stealing from parents’ wallets
- Lack of personal hygiene
- An increase in symptoms associated with anxiety or depression
- Poor coordination or confused, slurred speech
The causes of teenage drinking are numerous and different for each individual. What’s true for all teens who drink is that it can take a serious toll on their brains.
It only takes about five minutes for alcohol to reach the brain after it’s been consumed. It works on the brain’s communication system of neurotransmitters so that processing information is more difficult. Long-term brain damage, specifically impairing memory and thinking, can occur with sustained teenage alcohol abuse because young people’s brains aren’t fully mature. Alcohol consumption can also have a negative effect on a teen’s liver and hormone production during a critical stage of their development.
How to Help Someone with Teenage Alcoholism
Now 30 years old, Alec is sober and living a happy life with his anxiety under control. He attributes the change to his decision to finally open up about his deep-seated problems and seek the help he needed. Dr. Jody Adewale agrees, saying that when teens admit they need help, it’s a sign of strength, not weakness.
One of the best things families can do is establish open lines of communication with their teens and listen to what’s truly going on in their lives. If their teen does admit to an alcohol problem, they shouldn’t hesitate to seek professional help.
Other ways to help someone struggling with teenage alcohol abuse:
- Arrange for counseling with a professional therapist who can teach coping skills for teens to manage their problems in a healthy way
- Dr. Jody Adewale urges parents to encourage their teen to take life one day at a time. Tell them not to worry about their future, whether it’s next week or next year. Help them focus on being sober in the moment.
- Make sure the teen understands the causes of their teenage drinking and that those triggers are addressed in therapy to help prevent relapse, Dr. Jody Adewale states
- Monitor the teen’s cell phone and social media to help ensure they’re not hanging around with friends who don’t support sobriety
- Have a physician or medical professional monitor any medication the teen is prescribed
- Set healthy habits as a family, such as mindfulness meditation in the morning or yoga in the evening
- Help the teen find spiritual strength in something bigger than themselves, whether that’s the universe or a higher power
- Have the teen keep a gratitude journal to help develop a positive mindset
Dr. Jody Adewale says sobriety can be tough for some people to maintain, but it’s worth it. There are so many gifts associated with sobriety. Family, school, work, legal status, relationships—they all improve without alcohol standing in the way.
Teens and their families can better understand mental health issues by visiting TAG. This streaming service offers a variety of videos featuring real people sharing their stories, as well as clinicians offering professional observations. It’s a safe space that encourages open discussion of mental health issues among families—there are no stigmas, just acceptance. Visit TAG to learn more.