Teen alcohol abuse has become a tragic element of our society’s evolution and a very real threat to the safety of teenagers in the United States.
Teens today are drinking just as much, if not more than, the generations prior. In fact, a majority of teens will have tried alcohol at least once before they graduate high school.
It is also not unusual for teens to become drunk at least once before they are legally allowed to drink. This is because of one of the scariest parts of the teen drinking scene: binge drinking. Kids simply don’t know when to quit. This leads to alcohol poisoning, brain damage, liver failure, or even death.
What’s even more staggering is when it’s discovered that parents supplied the alcohol. Many parents labor under the misconception that if they keep the teens in their home, and allow them to drink small amounts of alcohol under adult supervision, it’s safer. It is never safe for teens to be drinking under any circumstances. The teen brain is still developing during high school and drinking in excess can cause permanent brain damage or death at that young age.
This parental permissiveness is not only dangerous in the moment – it can lead to teen alcohol abuse as the teens in question know that they’ll have easy access to alcohol in their homes and can turn to it when they “need” it.
Just as adults use alcohol to cope with stress, teens with access to alcohol can also become addicted to alcohol and abuse it. While there are obvious signs of alcohol abuse (like alcohol missing from the home, empty bottles or cans in the child’s room, the teen acting drunk), parents need to watch for the other signs of alcohol abuse in teens, including a change in their attitude, new friends vastly different from their regular friend group, major changes in their appearances, severe mood swings, and a negative change in their in school performance.
While there are physical signs that are indicative of how the teen’s body is reacting to long-term alcohol abuse, there are mental and emotional signs as well.
These signs show in the way your teen begins to interact with you, their siblings, or even other adults in positions of power around them.
As a result of alcohol abuse, your teen may become unruly or disrespectful. The child could start cursing and calling you names. The teen may verbally or physically abuse younger siblings.
While it’s not uncommon for teens to be rebellious and disrespectful to adults as they find their footing in the world and push back against rules they feel are unfair, when a child’s attitude swings violently and becomes unstable, this could be an indication of alcohol abuse.
When a person abuses alcohol at any age, they will become dependent on it. When the body has gone too long without, symptoms of withdrawal will begin. If your teen is going through the early stages of withdrawal, their attitude will be provocative at best and altogether vicious at the worst.
The child undergoing alcohol withdrawal does not understand what is happening to their body as they are most likely too young and too overwhelmed to understand the dangers of this condition. Just like any other human, a teen undergoing alcohol withdrawal will lash out at what they don’t understand.
The teen deep into alcohol abuse also tends to believe that the parent is the last person who will understand what they are going through. Teens never believe that parents can comprehend the horrors of being a hormone-filled, mood-swinging creature trapped in school for seven to eight hours a day.
Teens never believe that parents will understand their need to cope – and therefore, they come to believe that alcohol, their coping mechanism of choice, is the best idea.
As such, the teens lash out, act uncooperatively, are destructive, and lose control of their tempers.
The teen abusing alcohol will also justify their bad behaviors – such as stealing liquor from their parents, stealing money to buy booze, or getting it from older relatives and friends. They truly believe they need alcohol in order to survive.
Additionally: once they have experienced the first signs of withdrawal, they will come to believe they require alcohol even more in order to help control the shakes, shivers, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting that may accompany their experience of withdrawal.
When a teen falls victim to alcohol abuse, it often comes with a new set of friends that encourage their use of alcohol.
When you notice that your teen isn’t seeing the same crowd on a regular basis, ask your teen to have their new friends over for a pizza party so you can get to know them. If the teens are into alcohol or drugs, odds are they will reject the invitation or come up with excuses. This is very telling as teenagers rarely turn down the opportunity for free food.
But, don’t make the mistake of asking what happened to the “old friends”. This could lead to a fight with your teen and them turning to their new friends, people that may have gained more influence over your child than you have at that age.
Simply show interest in the new crowd and ask to meet them and their parents. If your teen balks at this, try to find a phone number or email for the parents of the new kids and introduce yourself. Or, you can make an effort to track the parents down at a school event.
Taking these steps will no doubt anger your teen if they are participating in alcohol abuse. Your teen could yell and scream things like “stay out of my business” or “you don’t need to know everything”.
Does this sort of reaction mean that a new crowd automatically signals alcohol abuse? Of course not. Teens change friends frequently depending on their activities, schedules, hobbies and where people live.
However, if your teen is reluctant to let you get to know new friends, it’s time to start investigating why your teen is so secretive.
Don’t be afraid to go through your child’s room. While your teen may give you an argument about their “privacy”, it is incumbent upon all parents to know about any potential risky behaviors children are participating in, including alcohol abuse.
If you find even one empty bottle or can that held alcohol, gently confront your teen and determine the level of use. Then, get your child medical attention to determine any damage they may have done to their body.
Drastic Change in Appearance
Along with new friends can come a new appearance. If your teen has always been neat and tidy, but now they are a slob to the extreme, sit up and pay attention. The same is true in reverse. If your kid suddenly cares about their looks to the extreme, that is worth paying attention to.
More often than not, however, a child in the throes of alcohol abuse will start caring less about their appearance. Kids may stop bathing or showering. They might stop brushing out their hair or taking care of their teeth. They might not eat regularly and could lose weight, or, on the other end of the spectrum, they might begin to eat uncontrollably and gain weight. They may stop washing their clothes or wear the same things over and over again.
Anyone who is dealing with alcohol abuse is putting their body through the physical and mental wringer. If the teen who is abusing alcohol doesn’t properly hydrate, they could end up in the hospital with chronic dehydration – a serious condition that affects every organ system of the body. If the teen abusing alcohol doesn’t eat properly, hormones and electrolytes will spin out of balance causing any number of problems with the digestive system, nervous system, and cardiovascular system.
These physical effects can manifest as physical signs that could be easily ignored as symptoms of other issues – sunken or red eyes, dry skin, bad breath (indicating oral disease), massive weight loss or gain, yellowish skin or eyes (liver failure), cracked lips, bleeding gums, and loosening of teeth.
If you notice any one of these physical signs in your teen, get medical attention immediately.
Severe Mood Swings
What many people, even educated adults, don’t know, is that alcohol is a depressant.
Chemical depressants work against the body. They slow respiration and heartbeat, they affect the brain chemistry, and they flood the liver with toxins.
When alcohol abuse gets bad, a teen using alcohol will experience severe mood swings. If that teen already has a diagnosed mental illness, the symptoms of that mental illness will worsen. It is even possible that a sister illness could manifest with continued alcohol abuse.
When a teen is suffering from a mood disorder and is abusing alcohol, the alcohol will interfere with the neurotransmitters in the brain that control good mental health. If the neurotransmitters in the brain are not functioning properly, it is hard for the person to control mood swings. Intoxication will reduce inhibitions and that, in combination with a mood disorder like bipolar disorder, could cause the teen to lapse into troubling behavior.
Alcohol abuse also slows down the processes of the brain. It will make your teen feel tired, black out, develop memory loss, suffer from insomnia, or even have your teen begin thinking irrationally and experience paranoia. When any of these symptoms occur, it can be unsettling. An unsettled person will tend to be reactive and not handle changes in mood well.
Change in School Performance
One of the most obvious signs of alcohol abuse in a teen is a drop in school performance. This may be that your child starts letting grades slip, the child starts acting out during class, or the child’s study habits become irregular or non-existent.
If your child has always been a good student but has suddenly started having trouble, you need to pay attention and start focusing more on your child. Start by casually asking your child how school is going.
Do they like their teachers? How are classes going? Do they need help with anything?
If the child reacts in a non-committal fashion, things are probably okay, but you might need to reach out to the teachers to discuss any problems that might be occurring in the classroom.
If your child reacts with anger, there may be a significant issue with school that goes beyond the classroom (bullying, for example). If the child reacts violently or in a rage, there is clearly an issue that needs identifying and correcting – and this should start with asking the child about drugs and alcohol. Some kids may simply admit their alcohol abuse because they want help.
Most kids abusing alcohol, though, will argue and throw tantrums because the alcohol is affecting their brain chemistry. And often times, teachers are not even aware there is a problem.
In most school systems today, teachers and parents can communicate readily through email or text. However, the nature of education under current laws means that teachers rarely have time to engage with the students properly – they are too busy meeting standardized testing goals. Those goals also put enormous pressure on students.
Think about it: if you were told you could not graduate unless you passed a standardized test, wouldn’t you be worried too?
The pressure of standardized testing and the pressure to pursue a college degree after high school is a lot to put on a teenager. It is not surprising that these pressures could lead teens to use alcohol to cope. Teenagers, by nature, do not necessarily have the greatest coping skills.
Unless a parent or other caring adult has helped the child develop these skills over time, teens don’t know what to do to relieve their pressure and anxiety. The feeling they get being intoxicated is freeing and provides an escape from the pressures of life. This can easily lead to alcohol abuse.
Teens who have always worked hard and performed well will start skipping homework, avoid studying, and give up on academic goals if they start to abuse alcohol. It is critical for parents to check in with their kids on a regular basis to make sure everything is going well.
As our teens continue to get their hands on alcohol, parents, teachers, and guardians need to be on the lookout for the signs of alcohol abuse. Teens who drink regularly will start to exhibit changes almost immediately. Be aware of your child’s school performance, any new friends you don’t know, a change in appearance or self-care, changes in attitude, and severe mood swings.
Don’t ever feel bad about being a concerned parent. Parents are not here to be a child’s friend – a parent is here to guide and protect the child, even if it is from the child him or herself.
Get your child the help they need at a facility like our Hillcrest ATC! We’re here to help!