Experimenting with alcohol during teen years is nothing new. However, drinking alcohol is increasing at high rates and the age for experimentation is getting younger. Research indicates that those who begin to experiment with alcohol prior to age 15 are six times more likely to develop dependence later. This leads to the belief that early intervention can prevent abuse. This may not be the case. Research must also look at the disease concept of alcoholism.
Treating the Disease
Discouraging underage drinking and drug use has not historically affected outcomes for later dependence. The “Just Say No” government-run anti-drug campaign was a failure in preventing alcohol abuse by teens and pre-teens. This line of reasoning may be faulty, at best, since it implied that alcoholism was a result from choices people made rather than being a disease and real addiction.
However, it is now accepted that alcoholism is a disease, and whether underage kids drink or not does not necessarily determine whether one will turn into an alcoholic. While it is certainly true that drinking patterns, established in the early teens, may indicate a future problem with dependence on alcohol, there are other factors that can help determine alcoholism.
Markers that Indicate a Disposition toward Alcoholism
What does indicate future use of drugs and alcohol in teens are developmental and genetic markers indicating risk-taking tendencies and predilections for low rates of coping among young people. Another factor, labeled resiliency may indicate that those who undergo poor parenting or trauma at a young age can recover from those conditions without seeking escape via drugs/alcohol.
There is great difference between teenage alcohol/drug experimentation and addiction or alcoholism. Preventative education and intervention to reduce experimentation for teens may help to stem the rising incidence of traffic fatalities, overdose and suicide among those who try alcohol due to peer pressure and/or social factors. This is the focus of many of these studies and government programs to improve parental guidance for teens who are considering exploration.
However, for there is treatment for teens who show signs of alcohol dependence. No amount of parental intervention, education or concern will stop alcoholism. What is important to determine is the extent of the problem. Signs to look for in teenagers who who may have a problem:
- lying about where they go and with whom
- new friends or groups
- changes in habits and behavior like a drop in grades or disinterest in hobbies
- mood swings
- angry or emotional outbursts
- smell of alcohol on breath or clothing
- breaking rules of curfew or at school.
These may indicate beginnings of experimental drinking but can also be signs of a more established problem. Parents who suspect their child may be experimenting with alcohol are encouraged to seek help. This may be found in counseling, therapy or treatment if the behaviors persist. Addiction is treatable and family counseling may indicate how deep the problem runs.
Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions’ counselor.