American teens drink – and many of them drink quite a lot. Data from 2019 shows that about 29 percent of high school students drank alcohol in the past 30 days, while about 14 percent engaged in binge drinking, and at least 5 percent drove drunk. While these numbers are down significantly from past decades, they are not insignificant either.
Alcohol has a very long history in most human societies and is anthropologically one of the oldest psychoactive substances we have actively produced and consumed. Drinking is ingrained in many cultures as a social ritual, especially in the West. Our children grow up exposed to alcohol and drinking as an accepted and important part of adulthood and growing up.
It’s no wonder that they want to experiment with the drug as soon as possible, and it’s known that children tend to mirror their parents, even when it comes to drinking frequency. But exposure to alcohol at a young age can greatly increase the risk of teen alcoholism. The teenage brain is more prone to the addictiveness of any drug, and alcohol is no exception.
Early-onset of frequent drinking is a significant risk factor for drinking problems and a long-term alcohol use disorder. The data shows that the younger someone starts drinking, the faster they get addicted, and the more likely they are to continue to struggle with alcohol later in adulthood. However, other important risk factors can predict and contribute to teen alcoholism.
What Are the Risk Factors for Teen Alcoholism?
The risk factors for teen alcoholism and early teen alcohol use vary, but parental and peer influences are the most powerful. Parenting choices especially, particularly rules surrounding alcohol, were useful predictors for early-onset drinking in a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics based on Australian data. But aside from parenting and environment, genetics also play a role. Teens and adults with a history of alcohol use disorder were also likely to have other family members with alcoholism.
Even when environmental factors are accounted for (i.e., growing up in another home), genetics still played a role in predisposition. This often means that someone with several cases of alcoholism in the family might develop an addiction to alcohol more quickly than their peers. This risk can potentially be measured through brain activity and even early childhood temperament. Associated and co-occurring mental health issues are another predictor for alcohol use disorder risk, as one can influence the other both behaviorally and neurologically.
For example, teens with diagnosed mood disorders and/or anxiety disorders were more likely to binge drink than their peers. Early-onset alcohol use was also linked to the likelihood of a conduct disorder. Other psychosocial risk factors also play a role. Early childhood experiences, trauma, abuse, and socioeconomic status are also linked to early-onset drinking and teen alcoholism.
Teen-Specific Treatment Options
Teen alcoholism treatment is typically centered around inpatient rehabilitation or outpatient support, often in the form of one-on-one and group therapy. Inpatient programs involve living in a specialized residence and receiving treatment, often alongside a group of other teens, with around-the-clock supervision and daily therapy. These programs are usually tailored towards teens with a severe alcohol program, who need to be reintroduced to sober life one step at a time.
Outpatient programs have teens visit an outpatient facility regularly for treatment and therapy while leading an everyday life at home. These programs are usually targeted towards teens who have a less severe alcohol addiction and can guide a structured life of their own through school and other obligations. PHP and IOP are in-between options that help teens whose circumstances prevent a complete inpatient or residential treatment program but need more supervision and guidance than a typical outpatient program might provide.
Separate yet from these programs are support groups, which come in all shapes and sizes. Support groups may or may not be part of the treatment process and are usually left to the patient’s discretion. Some specialists recommend certain support groups, while others suggest that recoverees seek safe spaces in general, ones that guarantee a drug-free, alcohol-free, and prejudice-free environment. Supplemental treatments include (but is not limited to):
- Individual and family therapy.
- Long-term support through friends, family, and the community.
- Treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions (also known as a dual diagnosis).
Addiction treatment is always individualized. Every teen requires a unique approach tailored to their circumstances. For teens with a history of long-term alcohol use and addiction, any treatment program’s goal – whether inpatient or outpatient – is to treat the dependence and associated withdrawal symptoms and arm each teen with their own tailored toolkit to combat and prevent relapses.
However, treating addiction is about more than just one person. Teen alcoholism affects the entire family, the entire friend group, and sometimes, the entire community. There is a crucial social element to treating a person’s addiction that requires helping them integrate into everyday life, avoid relapses and triggers, and find their way back towards recovery in the case of deterioration.
Long-Term Support and Coping With Teen Alcoholism
The long-term healing process for teen alcoholism can be complex and may require patience on the family and friends’ recoveree. Addiction is a condition that changes the way behavior is rewarded and emphasized in the brain, to the point where old hobbies and healthier coping mechanisms pale in comparison to the urge to grab a drink.
Inpatient programs rely on a highly structured and regimented lifestyle to help teens break the behavioral grasp of addiction and introduce new and different activities and coping mechanisms. But it is friends and family that must continue to encourage those activities and coping mechanisms and help a teen get back onto their regimented schedule when things start to get tricky. No matter how a teen’s recovery is tackled, consistency, schedules, and a plan centered around long-term sobriety are important.