When someone you love is struggling with alcoholism, it can be scary, lonely and overwhelming as you try to understand this chronic disease and find ways to help them seek recovery. For parents, finding out that your underage child may have an alcohol use disorder can be even more devastating.
In the U.S., alcohol is the most widely used drug among America’s youth. Drinking by 12- to 20-year-olds accounts for 11% of all the alcohol drank in the States.1 Further, of the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey’s sample of students in high school, in the 30 days prior to taking the survey:1,2
- 8% drank one or more alcoholic drinks.
- 5% binge* drank.
- 5% of those who drove a vehicle in the 30 days prior to the survey drank and drove.
- 5% rode with a driver that had drunk alcohol.
*Binge drinking was defined as, for females, drinking in a row at least four alcoholic drinks in a couple hours and, for males, drinking in a row at least five alcoholic drinks in a couple hours.2
Based on the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, it was estimated that over 1.4 million 12- to 20-year-olds had an alcohol use disorder in the past year.3
Even if your son does not have an alcohol use disorder (AUD) currently, underage drinking has many potential consequences and may lead to an alcohol use disorder.1 If your underage son is drinking at all, you should institute suitable consequences for underage drinking, and if you think that your son has a significant drinking problem, you should get him help from professionals.4
Risks of Underage Drinking
When a child starts drinking before age 15, they have a higher chance of developing a problem with alcohol at some point than individuals who don’t start until they are at least 21.5 Those who drink underage have an increased risk of a variety of negative consequences such as social issues, school issues, physical issues (e.g., hangovers, illness), risky sexual activity, sexual assault, physical assault, problems with memory, and brain development alterations (which may have effects that last a lifetime).1,6 The brain is still maturing into an individual's early 20s, and heavy drinking as an adolescent can change the brain’s course of development and result in lasting cognitive deficits.7
Does My Son Have a Serious Problem?
It can be difficult to know if your son has a significant problem with alcohol. However, there are some warning signs that you can look for that may point to a drinking problem, such as:8
- Is he trading in his old friends for new friends? Does he not want you to get to know his new friends?
- Have his moods changed, such as suddenly getting angry, being defensive, and/or being irritable?
- Does he have trouble remembering things? Is he having concentration difficulties?
- Has he had slurred speech, incoordination, and/or bloodshot eyes?
- Is he having issues at school, like missing class, getting in trouble, and/or getting poor grades?
- Does he no longer care about things, such as his appearance and/or previous interests?
- Has he stopped following your rules?
- Have you found alcohol in his belongings and/or has his breath smelled like alcohol?
While these may be signs of an alcohol problem, they don’t necessarily mean one is present.8 The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) outlines criteria to diagnose an AUD. If a person drinks alcohol in a troublesome pattern which has considerably distressed or impaired that person (demonstrated through two or more of the eleven listed symptoms) in the past 12 months, then that individual meets criteria for an AUD. Some of the symptoms listed in the criteria include not succeeding in decreasing or managing drinking despite attempts to do so or persistently wanting to, craving alcohol, problems fulfilling important responsibilities due to regular drinking, and experiencing withdrawal.9
A healthcare professional can evaluate an individual for AUD.10
How to Help Others Struggling with Alcohol
Getting Help for Your Son
If you think your son has a significant problem with alcohol, it is important to seek professional help.4 Talking to your son about his alcohol use may be difficult or uncomfortable, he may even try to dodge the topic. But research shows that parents have a substantial amount of influence on their teen’s actions.8 Before talking with your son, it may be helpful to speak with a healthcare provider who specializes in addiction to obtain guidance.8
Adolescents have some different treatment needs when it comes to problems with substance use than adults have. Look to programs that offer substance use disorder treatment that is customized to the youth’s needs. Screening for other mental illnesses should also occur and any identified should be treated alongside the substance use disorder(s). Other issues, such as safety concerns and medical concerns, should also be evaluated for and addressed if needed. As a parent, you can participate by giving emotional support, facilitating treatment (such as by scheduling appointments), and providing structure and supervision. Additionally, some treatments are family-based. 11
Note: American Addiction Centers only provides treatment for individuals ages 18 and older.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Fact Sheets - Underage Drinking.
. Kann L, McManus T, Harris WA, et al. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance — United States, 2017. MMWR Surveill Summ2018; 67(8):1–114.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). 2017 NSDUH Detailed Tables.
. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2016). Talking With Teens About Alcohol: How You Make a Difference.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Underage Drinking Myths Versus Facts.
. A.D.A.M., Inc. (2018). Risks of underage drinking. In A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.
. Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information. (2013). Dangers of Teen Drinking.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2009). Make A Difference: Talk to your child about Alcohol.
. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders. In Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Use Disorder.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.