While unfortunate, teenage drinking usually doesn’t surprise most adults. Many people in the US had their first drink before turning 20, let alone 21 – and even among today’s teens, who are historically notable for drinking less than previous generations did, surveys show that more nearly a quarter have had a drink in the last month, and over 10 percent have had a binge drinking session in the last 30 days (defined as more than five drinks on a single occasion for men, and more than four drinks for women).
Yet while teenage drinking is risky in and of itself – as it often correlates with heavier alcohol use later in life, and a much higher risk of alcoholism than having your first drink later in life – most teens drink as a rite of passage, a coming-of-age ritual, because it’s part of “being an adult”, or out of an obligation to fit into the scene. Teenage drinking can take a turn for the worse, however, when teens begin to use alcohol as a means of escape, or even a form of self-medication.
Dangers of Teen Self-Medication
Alcohol is an addictive drug, which means it causes feelings of euphoria coupled with a subtle, yet growing effect on the pathways of the brain related to intrinsic motivation (your mental reward system) and emotional satisfaction. However, alcohol is also a central nervous system depressant, which means it slows your reflexes and autonomous functions, causes slurred speech and slower thinking, and affects your memory, cognition, and inhibition. At higher doses, alcohol can cause poisoning, resulting in respiratory distress, heart problems, and death.
Teens are more susceptible to alcohol’s short-term and long-term health consequences, including alcohol poisoning, alcohol use disorder, and various forms of organ damage, ranging from permanent memory loss to liver damage and heart disease.
So, why do teens turn to alcohol as a form of self-medication? In addition to causing short-term euphoria, alcohol also has an anti-anxiety effect – at least, at first. Research shows us that alcohol usage actually amplifies symptoms of anxiety, especially once the drug wears off – but while you’re in the early stages of drinking, it feels good, and can start to take the edge off your worries and negative thoughts.
This slippery slope heavily contributes to alcohol’s reputation as a form of self-medication for teens with anxiety or depressive symptoms. Furthermore, unlike other drugs, alcohol is readily and legally available, even if not for minors. Teens can acquire alcohol from parents, older friends, siblings, or at social gatherings and parties. As many as one in ten parents report that they’ve caught their teens stealing alcohol from them.
Physical Health Risks
Chronic alcohol use can contribute to liver cirrhosis, heart problems, a weakened immune system, lapses in memory, permanent cognitive damage, as well as other physical health problems related to chronic alcohol use such as alcoholic neuropathy, malnutrition (due to lack of a healthy diet), weight gain, gout, and even cancer.
However, these issues can be pronounced in teens. Because of their developing bodies and nervous systems, teens are at a greater risk of physical health issues caused by alcohol use.
Mental Health Consequences
The mental health consequences of long-term teen alcohol use coincide with alcohol’s pronounced effects on a developing human brain. Even 18-year-olds are far from fully developed, as the brain usually continues to mature and change well into a person’s 20s and early 30s.
For many teens, early drinking can cause long-term problems with emotional regulation and intrinsic motivation, as well as contribute to recurring symptoms of anxiety, depression, and an aggravation of existing mental health problems.
Alcohol is sometimes blamed on peer pressure, but excessive alcohol use always leads to social issues. Alcohol use strains relationships, it can lead to cut ties between friends and families, and for teens, it can have serious legal and academic consequences.
Furthermore, alcohol use decreases inhibition and increases the likelihood of risky behavior. Among teens, alcohol use correlates with unprotected sex, illegal activity, and dangerous behavior, from public assault to property damage and reckless driving. This can endanger your teen and those around them, and lead to inadvertent injuries and deaths.
Strategies for Prevention and Intervention
When alcohol use is linked to an existing mental health problem, treatment and prevention both involve addressing the underlying mental health issues.
If you’re interested in staging an intervention for your teen’s drinking habits, it may be a good idea to start by talking to them about it alone. Sympathize with them, and make sure they understand that you’re not out to judge them, but to find a better solution together. Only when they consistently refuse treatment should you talk to a professional about intervention, and strategies for convincing your teen to seek treatment anyway.
Teen alcohol addiction can be debilitating, and often comes out of a place of hurt, and a longing to feel better. For teens who start drinking to try and avoid feelings of sadness or worry, alcohol addiction can often become a terrifying consequence. Appropriate and quick treatment is important to help minimize the effects of long-term alcohol use, and help teens regain control of their lives, without interfering alcohol cravings or serious, life-long health issues.
We at Visions work with teens through our residential treatment programs to address the underlying factors surrounding teen alcohol use disorders, including depression, anxiety, trauma, behavioral issues, personality disorders, and more. We recognize that many cases of teen addiction involve co-occurring mental health issues, and our team is equipped to deal with such dual diagnoses.