Adolescents and alcohol. Some people would argue it’s an inevitable combination.  Others would argue that it doesn’t have to be that way.  Many parents of teens choose to ignore the red flags of their child’s alcohol abuse or regard it as some sort of adolescent “rite of passage” instead of a serious problem.  “Kids will be kids” they say, chalking underage drinking up to “normal” adolescent behavior.

Sadly, such a laissez faire mindset can result in a tragic outcome.  It can be hard to accept the possibility that your teen – especially your early adolescent who’s only 12 to 14 years old – is drinking alcohol without your knowledge. However, it’s imperative for you consider the high probability that he or she is.  After all, alcohol is the most widely abused substance among adolescents in the U.S.

This brief guide is designed to help you know what to look for and what to do if your teen is abusing alcohol.

Adolescent Alcohol Abuse Statistics

Following are just a few statistics and survey results regarding teens and alcohol abuse:

  • Alcohol is used by teens more than marijuana or cigarettes
  • Nearly 1 in 10 eighth graders reported they had consumed alcohol within the previous month
  • More than 1 in 4 eighth graders reported they have tried alcohol, and more than 1 in 10 said they’ve been drunk at least once
  • 1 in 5 high school seniors have engaged in binge drinking
  • Of all the alcohol consumed in the U.S., 11% is consumed by youth between the ages of 12 and 20 – primarily in the form of binge drinking
  • 8% of high school students have driven after consuming alcohol
  • Teens who start drinking alcohol prior to age 14 have a nearly 1 in 2 chance of becoming dependent on alcohol at some point in the future

Hopefully these statistics will help you realize just how prevalent underage drinking is.

Looking for and Recognizing the Signs of Alcohol Abuse  

No responsible parent wants his or her teen abusing alcohol.  The temptation for teens, however, is great, and the accessibility of alcohol – often through a friend or right from home – is frighteningly huge.  If you can accept the strong possibility that your teen has experimented with alcohol or may even be drinking fairly regularly, you’ll be more likely to spot the warning signs.  Once you do, you can take the necessary steps to help your teen.

One of the most important things to remember when looking for signs of alcohol abuse is this:

  • Watch for and pay close attention to any changes from your teen’s usual behavior, mood, or personality.

Signs of adolescent alcohol abuse include:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Glassy eyes
  • Slurred or incoherent speech
  • Poor coordination
  • Shaking or tremors
  • Changes in sleep or appetite
  • Alcohol odor on clothing, body, or breath
  • Frequent or excessive use of mouthwash, gum, or breath fresheners
  • Secretive behavior
  • Locking his or her door / spending lots of time alone in room
  • Drop in academic performance
  • Frequently missing or being late to school or work
  • Alcohol hidden in your teen’s belongings, bedroom, or car
  • Alcohol missing from your home
  • Decline in personal hygiene, grooming, and appearance
  • Increased need for money / borrowing or stealing money or selling valuables to get it
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability
  • Change in friends
  • Trouble with the law or school staff
  • Decreased interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Argumentativeness
  • Lying
  • Avoiding eye contact

Keep in mind that some of these warning signs can be due to other things, such as high stress or an underlying mental health issue.  That’s why a thorough evaluation is so important.  Whatever you do, don’t ignore the signs or assume your child is just “going through a phase”.

Knowing the First Steps to Take   

If you know for a fact – or at least strongly suspect – your teen is abusing alcohol, it’s time to be proactive.  Don’t hope or assume the issue will just go away by itself given time.  Also, while many teens do abuse alcohol, chalking it up to typical teenage behavior could lead to serious consequences down the road.  Following are three initial steps you can take to address the issue:

1 – Talk to your teen.  An open, honest, and calm conversation with your child is the best place to start.  Strive to keep any negative emotions, such as disappointment, anger, or fear at bay as you express your concerns.  Avoid lecturing, scolding, or angrily confronting your teen.  Those behaviors are almost guaranteed to backfire, causing your teen to shut down and tune you out completely.  Instead, let your child know that you genuinely want to understand and listen to whatever he or she has to say.  Your teen may not be willing to talk, especially if the lines of communication have been damaged or strained for some time.

2 – Set up an appointment for an evaluation.  One option for an evaluation is with your family doctor or your child’s pediatrician.  He or she can do a physical examination including lab tests to check for alcohol in your child’s system (unless too much time has passed).  A physical exam can also rule out any underlying medical issues that could be causing some of the signs you’ve noticed.  Also, your doctor can give you a referral or recommendation for treatment.

Another option is to have your child evaluated by a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional – preferably one who specializes in or has a lot of experience with substance abuse.  A mental health evaluation can help determine if your teen has any emotional issues or an undiagnosed mental health disorder, such as anxiety or bipolar disorder, that may be fueling the alcohol use.  Many teens use alcohol to cope with stress, alleviate troubling symptoms, or numb negative emotions.

A third option to consider for an evaluation is to contact a drug and alcohol treatment center.

3 – Get your child into treatment.  Once your child has been evaluated, you’ll be given treatment recommendations.  These recommendations will be determined by your teen’s specific needs as well as the severity of the alcohol abuse. Treatment may include:

  • Individual or group therapy or alcohol and drug counseling – This level of treatment usually involves weekly sessions lasting one to two hours. These sessions may be incorporated into a more intensive level of treatment – discussed below – if one is needed.
  • Dual diagnosis treatment – This treatment is recommended if your teen has a co-occurring mental health disorder in addition to his or her alcohol abuse. Treatment focuses on treating both rather than focusing on only one or the other.
  • Alcohol and drug rehabilitation – Rehab is offered at various levels of intensity depending on your child’s needs and severity of the problem.  (More on this below.)
  • Medication – Medication may be prescribed for teens to help alleviate serious alcohol withdrawal symptoms, reduce agitation or psychotic symptoms, or to help treat a co-occurring mental health disorder.
  • Family therapy – Alcohol abuse impacts the entire family. Also, many teens use alcohol to cope with family conflict, abuse in the home, or other problems going on at home.  Family therapy can help address these issues.

Supporting and Encouraging Your Child 

The two most important things you can do to help your teen recover from alcohol abuse is to be genuinely and consistently supportive and offer lots of encouragement.  The road to recovery can be a rocky one, and it can seriously strain any parent-child relationship.  Following are some things you can do to help your teen and minimize the strain:

  • Strive to get and keep the doors of communication open
  • Be respectful in your interactions with your teen. For example, avoid criticizing, talking over, or talking down to him or her
  • Educate yourself about adolescent alcohol abuse and addiction, as well as any other substances your teen may be abusing
  • Actively participate in your teen’s treatment and recovery
  • Spend quality time with your teen and take a genuine interest in his or her life
  • Be available and willing to really listen
  • Be patient if your teen isn’t ready or willing to open up to you
  • Keep your negative emotions in check and genuinely try to see things from your child’s perspective
  • Create a home environment that will support your child’s recovery; if you have a liquor cabinet or bar, keep it locked – don’t set your child up for failure by making alcohol in the home readily accessible. Additionally, consider the impact your or your spouse’s alcohol use has on your child
  • Be a good role model for your teen; practice what you preach
  • If your teen relapses, be patient and understanding. Avoid judging, ridiculing, or over-reacting
  • Understand that alcohol abuse can be very difficult to overcome. If your teen struggles, it doesn’t mean he or she is stupid or weak
  • Stay calm even when you feel anxious or scared
  • Be willing to address your own issues that may be creating conflict or stress in your relationship with your teen

What to Do When Things Escalate

Alcohol abuse can cause erratic behavior, mood swings, and even suicidal thoughts and behavior in teens.  The unpredictability of alcohol’s impact can cause things to quickly escalate, leading to a precarious or outright dangerous situation.  As a parent, you’ll need to have a plan in place and take quick action to ensure everyone’s safety.

If things do escalate there are several things you can do:

  • Contact your child’s provider
  • Enlist the help of a close family member or friend for support or assistance
  • Take your child to the nearest hospital emergency room (if you can transport him or her safely)
  • Call 911

When Individual Therapy isn’t Enough   

With substance use disorders, weekly individual therapy or drug and alcohol counseling often isn’t sufficient to get and keep your child clean and sober and on a stable road to recovery.  If your child:

  • Is continuing to abuse alcohol
  • Lacks a stable support system
  • Has a co-occurring mental health disorder
  • Is actively contemplating suicide or making suicide attempts or gestures
  • Is psychotic or manic
  • Is unable to function at all or without frequent assistance

then it’s time to consider a more intensive level of treatment.  This may involve:

  • Outpatient alcohol treatment
  • Day treatment / Intensive outpatient treatment (IOP) / Partial hospitalization
  • Residential or inpatient alcohol treatment
  • Hospitalization

Outpatient Rehab – This level of treatment is a step above weekly therapy or drug and alcohol counseling.  Although programs vary somewhat, clients often attend 3 times a week for 3 hours per session. Adolescents typically live at home and are usually able to attend school with minimal interruption.

Day Treatment* – This level of treatment, also often called intensive outpatient treatment (IOP) or partial hospitalization is a step up from outpatient rehab.  Adolescents go to treatment daily, usually for 4 hours per day, and attend school at least part time.  They live at home or, if additional support is needed, in a sober living facility.

Residential or Inpatient Alcohol Treatment* – Residential alcohol treatment, also often referred to as inpatient alcohol treatment, involves having your son or daughter live ‘round the clock at a non-hospital treatment facility.  This intensive level of treatment may last anywhere from 28 to 120 days, depending on your child’s treatment needs and progress.  In addition to receiving full-time alcohol treatment, one of the greatest advantages of residential alcohol rehab is being in an environment that is free from alcohol and drugs.  This enables your child to focus on recovery without having to deal with the temptation to drink.

Day treatment and residential treatment can be particularly beneficial for adolescents who are battling a mental health disorder in addition to an alcohol problem.

Hospitalization – Hospitalization may be necessary if your child is a danger to himself or others (e.g. suicidal or psychotic), or in need of 24/7 medical monitoring due to excessive alcohol use.  The latter is often due to heavy binge drinking, which is an increasing and dangerous trend amongst adolescents and young adults.

Each of these more intensive levels of treatment (except for medical – vs. psychiatric – hospitalization) usually provides a variety of therapeutic activities, including individual and / or group therapy.  Family therapy may also be offered depending on the program.

Taking Care of Yourself

There’s no aspect of this process that’s going to easy.  Helping your child is obviously one of your highest priorities, but be careful to avoid neglecting your own self-care along the way.  You’ll be more available and effective if you do things to bolster your own emotional, physical, and mental well-being.

Following are some steps you can take:

  • Surround yourself with support by joining a support group (local or online), working with a therapist, and reaching out to family and friends – you can’t do it alone.
  • Make sure you get plenty of sleep and rest
  • Find healthy ways to manage your stress, such as yoga, meditation, and exercise
  • Make time for yourself so you can recharge your own batteries

The road ahead will have plenty of bumps.  Whatever you do, don’t lose hope.  Thousands of teens recover from alcohol abuse, even when things look bleak at first.  Your teen can recover as well!