Alcohol is the number one abused drug by youth in America. Even though drinking under the age of 21 is illegal, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes that 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States is by those between the ages of 12 and 20.
Specialized Treatment for Teen Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
Teenagers have fewer inhibitions than adults in general, often take bigger risks, and are more action-oriented in general. Teens have intense emotions that they may not be sure how to control and commonly strive to “fit in” at all costs, potentially giving in more easily to peer pressure than other age demographics.
Preventing underage alcohol abuse in the first place is often the initial goal of alcohol abuse treatment. Public education and warnings to the possible hazards and tragic consequences of underage drinking may help to dispel some of the commonly held beliefs that alcohol is relatively “safe” and not a big deal for teenagers to consume. Offering “safe” places and alcohol-free environments can help to discourage use. Alcohol is easily accessible, and most of the alcohol teenagers consume they receive for free from a relative or friend, so limiting access can help with prevention. Beyond prevention, specialized alcohol addiction treatment programs often provide differing levels of care for families and teens.
Inpatient or Outpatient
In general, alcohol abuse and addiction treatment is offered in both residential and outpatient settings, and the level of care a person needs will depend on their specific circumstances. Typically, someone who is more heavily dependent on alcohol will benefit most from a highly structured and comprehensive residential treatment program that can provide around-the-clock supervision and care. Students who are in school and have highly involved parents and a stable home life, who may be less dependent on alcohol, may prefer outpatient rehab, as it can be more flexible and fit in around a family’s existing schedule and obligations. Partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs provide a kind of in-between option for families as well.
A Need for Detox
Difficult and even potentially life-threatening side effects can accompany alcohol withdrawal when a person is dependent on it. As a result, medical detox is often the first step in any alcohol abuse treatment program. Detox should then followed with a complete addiction treatment program that may include both medications and therapeutic measures.
Support Groups and Therapy
Teenagers are wired differently from adults, and when it comes to alcohol abuse and addiction treatment, they often have specialized needs. For instance, peer input is extremely important to adolescents, and teens may benefit from peer-based group counseling, support groups, and therapy sessions. Adolescent addiction treatment should also strive to integrate school, athletics, and other groups into treatment.
Behavioral therapy sessions help teens learn how to make positive decisions and develop healthy life skills, such as communication and stress management tools. A teenager often feels things intensely, so learning how to better control emotions, recognize negative thoughts and how they impact future behaviors, and manage possible stressors can be important for minimizing relapse. Low self-confidence and poor self-esteem may be stumbling blocks for teens that can be triggers for alcohol abuse, and group and individual therapy sessions can help to work through and improve these areas.
Family involvement is particularly important for teens. Family counseling, family support and education, and positive parental involvement in treatment are highly beneficial for a teen’s recovery. NIDA reports that teenagers often suffer from co-occurring mental disorders at the same time as addiction; these teens will benefit most from integrated treatment that addresses both disorders at the same time.
Early intervention is critical for teens, as effective treatment can circumvent later addiction issues in life. Alcohol abuse and addiction treatment should be individualized for each teen. Treatment coordinators can help families determine what option will be the best fit.
Alcohol is a mind-altering substance that can be enjoyed responsibly in moderation by adults of legal drinking age. Underage drinkers, however, tend to drink alcohol in larger amounts than adults, and excessive drinking can lead to a multitude of negative consequences. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) warns that by age 18 around 60 percent of teenagers have consumed at least one drink, and 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by teens is through binge drinking. Binge drinking is when a person brings their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) up to or above 0.08 g/dL, which often happens from drinking more than five standard* drinks for a woman, or four drinks for a man, in a two-hour period, NIAAA explains.
*As defined by the Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020, a standard drink is one beer (12 ounces, containing 5 percent alcohol), one glass of wine (5 ounces, containing 12 percent alcohol, or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits, containing 40 percent alcohol.
In general, any amount of alcohol consumed by teens is considered dangerous; however, heightened risks come with increased use. The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports that over one-third of 15-year-old individuals admit to drinking at least one alcoholic drink in their lifetimes, and close to 8 million youth (people between the ages of 12 and 20) say they drank alcohol in the month prior to the survey, NIAAA publishes. According to the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 33.2 percent of high school seniors used alcohol in the month leading up to the 2016 national survey, 19.9 percent of 10th graders did so, and 7.3 percent of 8th grade students did. NIAAA further publishes that the 2015 NSDUH found that 623,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 battled an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Teenage alcohol use is a public health concern that can lead to many potential issues and concerns.
The Hazards of Underage Drinking
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that underage drinking is a major contributor to death from injury, which is the number one cause of death for those under the age of 21. Alcohol can increase the odds that a person will be involved in an accident, get injured, be victim of a crime, or engage in potentially risky behaviors in general.
Around 5,000 people under the age of 21 in the United States die every year from alcohol-related injuries, the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) warns. Approximately 38 percent of these involve underage drinking or are alcohol-related. They include deaths from motor vehicle crashes; 32 percent are homicides; and 6 percent are suicides.
Alcohol interferes with balance and coordination, meaning that a person may fall down more and be at an increased risk for getting burned or drowning. NIAAA reports that underage drinking resulted in nearly 200,000 visits to an emergency department (ED) by those under the legal drinking age of 21 in 2011 alone.
Excessive alcohol use can lead to a toxic buildup of alcohol in the bloodstream, and this can result in alcohol poisoning, which can also be fatal. Signs of alcohol poisoning that are cause for immediate medical attention include:
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Sluggishness and significantly uncoordinated movements
- Extreme confusion
- Shallow or slow breathing
- Weak pulse and slow heart rate
- Bluish color to lips, nails, and/or skin
- Being cold to the touch
- Loss of consciousness and inability to awaken
Alcohol impairs the way a person thinks, making them more likely to be involved in a situation that can become potentially violent, dangerous, or hazardous. Alcohol lowers a person’s inhibitions and interferes with normal decision-making abilities. As a result, someone under the influence of alcohol is more apt to engage in questionable or unsafe sexual practices that may increase the odds for an unwanted pregnancy or the contraction of a sexually transmitted or infectious disease like HIV/AIDS or hepatitis. Individuals may experience a change in personality while drinking, become aggressive or violent, and be more likely to carry out or become the victim of a sexual assault. Alcohol also impairs memory and can lead to “blackouts,” wherein a person may not have any recollection of events that occurred while intoxicated.
Teenagers who consume alcohol may be more likely to engage in criminal behaviors and get in trouble with the law. Drinking can interfere with a person’s ability to think clearly, which can lead to declining schoolwork and grades. Underage drinking may open the door for other drug abuse, which can elevate all possible risk factors and negative consequences.
Underage Drinking and Heightened Risk for Addiction
Drinking alcohol interferes with the normal function of the brain and changes brain chemistry. This can impact a teenager’s brain growth and development, as their brain is not fully formed yet and is therefore malleable.
The American Psychological Association (APA) warns that drinking alcohol prior to age 13 can make a person nearly 40 percent more likely to then suffer from alcohol dependence as adults. The CDC further indicates that drinking alcohol before the age of 15 makes a person six times more apt to suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence later in life than those who wait until they are of legal drinking age to consume alcohol.
Underage drinking is a definite risk factor for alcohol addiction, as are environmental factors, such as an unstable home life, stress, and peer pressure, and genetic and biological aspects. A family history of alcoholism increases the possibility as well, as alcohol addiction is considered to be heritable about half the time, NIAAA publishes.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant drug. It acts on parts of the brain that are responsible for learning, memory, emotional regulation, movement, and pleasure. By interfering with the normal production, transmission, and reabsorption of some of the brain’s naturally occurring chemical messengers, such as dopamine, brain function and potentially even its development can be impaired.
When someone drinks on a regular basis, the brain will work to keep its balance and will come to expect the interference of alcohol on its neurotransmitters. When this happens, a person can develop a tolerance to alcohol and need more to keep feeling its desired effects. A dependence can form that will often include difficult withdrawal symptoms and cravings when alcohol wears off and isn’t active in the bloodstream.
Alcohol addiction is when a person cannot control their drinking. Even though they may want to stop drinking, and may have tried more than once to stop, they will be unable to do so without help.