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Prevalence Of Alcohol Abuse Among Teens

While alcohol is still the most commonly abused substance by young people, drug, alcohol, and narcotics use in teens has declined significantly in recent years. However, while trends of alcohol use among teens are decreasing, there are still significant factors that increase the risk of alcohol abuse among underage individuals. 

Preventing alcohol abuse in teens requires a multifaceted approach that involves understanding why teens drink, learning what factors increase the risk of teenage alcohol abuse, and implementing programs that provide positive environments and resources to deter substance use.    

Why Do Teens Drink?

To best prevent teens from using alcohol, it’s essential to understand the factors that play into a young person reaching for their first sip of alcohol. Many young people face multiple environmental, social, and personal transitions as they enter high school, which can leave them susceptible to negative influences and high-risk behavior. Some teens want to try alcohol for many reasons, but they are often unaware of the negative health and behavioral effects of alcohol abuse. Also, alcohol is often easily accessible to young people. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), most young people receive alcohol from family members or find it at home.

Common risk factors for alcohol abuse like peer pressure, a desire for independence, and stress align with the significant social transitions many young people face. Additional factors that may increase the risk of teen alcohol abuse include:

  • Genetic factors and family history of alcoholism.
  • Depression and other mental health conditions. 
  • Environmental factors.
  • Social factors.
  • Rate of maturation and development.

Harms Of Alcohol Abuse For Teens

Teen alcohol abuse poses a significant public health problem in the US, with excessive drinking responsible for more than 3,900 deaths and 225,000 years of potential life lost among people under age 21 each year. Although the youth drink less often than adults, when they do drink, they drink more. More than 90% of the alcoholic drinks consumed by teens are consumed through binge drinking (consuming 4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more for men within 2 hours). 

There are significant consequences as a result of underage drinking, including long-term changes in brain development, alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes, and an increased risk of suicide and homicide. Additionally, underage drinking is also associated with adult drinking, with research showing that those who begin drinking by age 15 have a higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder later in life. 

Different Levels Of Alcohol Abuse Prevention

There are several levels where alcohol abuse prevention can be addressed: on an individual level, a policy level, and an institutional level.   

Individual-Based Prevention

On the individual level, adults, parental figures, and loved ones can play an integral role in shaping how young people view drinking. Fostering a judgment-free and open conversation about underage alcohol use with teens can instill positive habits while maintaining their need for independence and curiosity without fear tactics, shame, or blame. Family factors, like parent-child relationships, communication, monitoring, and parental figure involvement, can significantly impact alcohol use among young people.

Adults can encourage teens’ growing independence within appropriate limits and help teens avoid high-risk or dangerous situations (like riding in a car when someone under the influence is driving or attending an event where peers are drinking). According to the NIAAA, helpful family strategies for preventing drug and alcohol use among teens include home-based parental figure-child activities, positive reinforcement, family skills training, and family behavioral therapy.     

Policy-Based Prevention

Local coalitions and groups can lead community programs and initiatives that can spearhead institutional and public policy changes to combat teen alcohol abuse. Public policies can aid in reducing or limiting the availability of alcohol for young people through multiple approaches. One approach involves law enforcement officers implementing compliance checks on establishments that sell alcohol to ensure that they are not conducting sales with underage people. 

Policies can also help reduce the economic availability of alcohol. Studies have shown an inverse relationship between the price of alcohol and the consumption rates, meaning higher prices equate to lower rates of alcohol consumption. This policy applies to teenagers because higher alcohol prices may substantially reduce both the frequency and the amount of teen drinking and abuse.

Institution-Based Prevention

On the institutional level, schools can provide an environment and opportunity for teens to learn personal, social, and resistance skills that aid in preventing alcohol use. Such development of skills helps young people identify the internal pressures (like stress and anxiety) and external pressures (peer pressure and advertisements) that can lead to substance use. The most effective school-based, interactive programs reduce the risk of alcohol abuse among teens at the individual level (through education and skill development) and address social and environmental risk factors. 

Warning Signs Of Alcohol Abuse In Youths

While many young people will experience behavioral fluctuations as they age, if these changes occur suddenly, all at once, or if these behaviors are extreme, it may be a warning sign of alcohol misuse or abuse. If a young person is misusing or abusing alcohol, they may exhibit the following warning signs:

  • Academic problems (slipping grades, poor attendance, or increased disciplinary action).
  • Lack of involvement in former interests and hobbies.
  • Rapid mood changes (defensiveness, temper flare-ups, or irritability).
  • Lapses in memory and decreased concentration.
  • Changes in friend groups. 

Additionally, depression, mood instability, and apathy are warning signs of potential teen alcohol abuse. Again, it is common and normal for young people to experience behavioral and mannerism changes or “growing pains,” but if a teen is exhibiting a combination of these warning signs, there may be a serious problem to examine.  

Alcoholism Treatment For Teens

Screening young people for alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorders (AUD) may help prevent problems down the road; however, there are options for those seeking treatment for alcohol abuse. There are specific differences between treatment programs designed for young adults and non-specific treatment facilities. These differences range from the design of treatment programs, medication regimes, and continued care. In general, alcoholism treatment may begin with a supervised alcohol detox to remove alcohol from an individual’s system while managing potentially uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. After detox, there are several treatment options an individual can consider, including inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, and alcohol treatment medications

Reach Out For Help

Young people experience an onslaught of rapidly changing internal and external pressures, and some turn to alcohol to cope. Underage alcohol abuse can lead to significant health risks and outcomes later in life, so it is essential to seek treatment. Contact a treatment provider here for more information on treatment options for substance abuse.  

  • Author: Carmen McCrackin | Last Updated: February 7, 2023

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    Carmen McCrackin

    Carmen McCrackin earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Auburn and has over 3 years of professional writing experience. Her passion for writing and educating others led her to a career in journalism with a focus on mental health and social justice topics. Her main mission is to be a platform for all voices and stories, and to provide tangible resources to those seeking recovery for themselves or loved ones.

  • Medical Reviewer: David Hampton

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