Surveys estimate that about one in five teens between ages 14 and 15 have had an alcoholic beverage. Binge drinking statistics are even more worrying – about 7.2 percent of boys and 8.8 percent of girls aged 16 and 17 have had a binge drinking session in the last month. More so than any other substance, alcohol is by far the most widely used addictive substance among America’s youth.
If you’ve recently discovered signs that your teenager may be drinking, you may be wondering what to do if you catch your teenager drinking. It’s important to consider a few things … how often are they drinking, how much are they drinking, and how long have they been drinking. While alcohol is dangerous, both due to its addictive nature and its short-term effects on cognition and decision-making, blowing things out of proportion or alienating your teen and losing their trust might not serve you well.
In this article, we will explore what to do if you catch your teenager drinking so you can decide how to respond appropriately. If you suspect your teen may have a drinking problem, consider exploring the benefits of professional help through a reputable teen alcohol treatment program.
Before you blow up on your teen, take a step back and review the situation within a broader context.
Most teens are smart enough to know that they shouldn’t be drinking. However, alcohol is also ubiquitous, and some alcohol consumption – especially “social drinking” – is a celebrated and accepted fact of life, especially in adulthood. Many teens don’t know how to deal with this contradiction.
On one hand, drinking can destroy a life. On the other hand, drinking is portrayed as an important part of growing up in popular media. And many teens desperately want to grow up.
Mystifying alcohol as something dangerous that only adults can partake in gives it great power, and places it on a pedestal.
Finally, even if your teen isn’t particularly interested in drinking, it can be hard to resist peer pressure to at least have one drink when everyone else is having one too. It’s easier to stay sober in groups, or at least in pairs. When you’re the odd one out, things can get awkward.
The truth is, it’s hard to fault a teen for trying out alcohol. While you have every right to be upset – and a lot of teens expect their parents to be upset – reacting too harshly might get things started off on the wrong foot, especially if you still drink on occasion. The goal shouldn’t be to scare your teen out of drinking (it’s unlikely to work), but to convince them that drinking, especially heavy drinking, is not cool and a bad idea.
Figuring Out the Scope of the Problem
Short-term alcohol use has immediate effects, most of which are well-recognized. You can smell booze, and reasonably infer the sobriety of a teen based on their words and actions. Alcohol causes slurred speech, impedes balance and coordination, slows critical thinking, and reduces inhibition. If your teen comes home drunk after a long night out with their friends, you can expect to notice it.
But consistent long-term alcohol use can take a little while to rear its ugly head. Symptoms include inexplicable weight gain, poor sleep quality, frequently red or swollen eyes, poor hygiene, a dropped immune system (more frequently sick), and plenty of long nights.
Emotionally, long-term alcohol use can worsen bouts of anxiety and depression (feeding the urge to drink), increase irritability, shorten a teen’s temper, affect memory and cognition, and change a teen’s behavior.
Socially, teen drinking may lead to relationship problems, a sudden and vast change in friends and peers, absenteeism, and poor grades.
It’s important to talk to your teen as soon as you notice that they’ve been drinking. Even if it’s only been once or twice, understanding how and why your teen has been drinking can help you figure out if it’s an issue that can be resolved with a stern talk, or one that might require more help. Not overreacting is also key to getting a straight answer. If you’re more likely to “freak out”, your teen might be more inclined to try and lie to you or minimize the extent of the problem. They need to know that you’re not out to punish them, but rather to help them.
Creating Boundaries and Setting Expectations
Even if it was just “the one time”, it’s important to set boundaries and clear expectations for what might happen if those boundaries are ignored. The consequences for drinking need to be clear and enforced accordingly.
Teens also need to understand why these rules are important. Teen drug use, especially alcohol use, is indeed different to adult alcohol use.
Research shows that the earlier a teen starts drinking, the more likely they are to struggle to control their drinking habits later in life. Alcohol has a different effect on teens than it does on adults – because teen brains are still in the developmental stage, alcohol can have a stronger impact on the portions of the brain dedicated to motivation, reward, and pleasure, making them more susceptible to addiction and cognitive decline.
Then, there are the legal and academic consequences of getting caught drinking. These can significantly impact a teen’s early adulthood and come back to haunt them years later.
Yes, alcohol is a popular drug, and one that millions of Americans partake in regularly. But just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Teens want to feel and be independent – help them understand that alcohol is something that will only serve to tie them down, limit their potential, and create dependence on a substance that regularly ruins lives, and causes an estimated 3,900 teen deaths per year.
Encourage Healthy Activities and Positive Coping Skills
Sometimes, teens turn to alcohol as an outlet for emotional stress. This is especially common in teens who are already struggling with some form of emotional baggage, such as an anxiety disorder or symptoms of depression. One way to help protect them from an alcohol addiction is to encourage healthier, positive coping habits, such as sports, art, a creative endeavor, or their academic ambition.
Help your teen manage their workload at school by encouraging them to give themselves time to relax, as well, and to learn to schedule work time and play time to avoid the problems of adult procrastination.
Don’t underestimate your own influence. While parents are worried about peer influence, research consistently points out that teens care more about what their parents think and are still likely to mirror their parents’ actions and views. A healthy parent-teen relationship is one of the strongest protective factors against addiction, as is being a healthy role model by avoiding alcohol and other addictive substances yourself.
Finally, know when it’s time to seek help. Addiction can be a terrible illness, and one that requires professional treatment. If you’re worried that your teen’s drinking is getting out of hand, call today.