Elk River Teen Treatment Program

When to Consider Treatment for Underage Drinking

Early alcohol abuse almost always leads to substance abuse

Alcohol Abuse / Underage Drinking

Underage Binge Drinking is Serious Problem

When some people imagine teens drinking alcohol, they might think of a curious adolescent taking a sip or two from a parent’s beer or glass of wine. But did you know that 90% of underage drinking is in the form of binge drinking? Teenagers drink over ten percent of all the alcohol consumed in the United States, and it can cause permanent damage to their brains, behaviors, and future.

Parents should be aware that underage drinking is more serious than “just a phase.” A teen who starts drinking before the age of 15 is at least 4 times more likely to struggle with an alcohol use disorder later in life. Teens who drink are also at higher risk for experimenting with illicit and prescription drug abuse, which can cause many physical complications and put them at higher risk for accidents or other risky behaviors. Hundreds of thousands of emergency room visits each year are due to teen alcohol-related injuries. Enough emergency room visits and a parent might begin researching residential treatment programs for their out-of-control teen.

Substance Abuse Often Follows Alcohol Use

There are hundreds of residential programs across the United States that address teen alcohol and drug (A & D) abuse. Although not primarily an A & D facility, Elk River Treatment Program (ERTP) accepts ages 12 to 18 with symptoms of alcohol and substance abuse but therapists at ERTP are primarily concerned with the underlying issues that drive such negative self-coping behaviors.

A survey of residents at ERTP in September 2017 revealed that 40% had been admitted due to substance abuse, but Admission Director Kathy DeMellier explained that alcohol abuse almost always co-occurs with substance abuse. “It’s our experience that alcohol leads to substance abuse and other poor decision-making. It is the substance abuse and issues related to it is that drives parents to consider residential intervention,” she said. 

Causes of Underage Drinking

There are many reasons why a teen might try alcohol. Some studies suggest that teens are programmed to take risks more often than other age groups and sometimes the risk includes experimentation with alcohol. Teens also tend to drink more when their parents model excessive drinking or lack of responsibility with alcohol. Because there are hereditary factors, being the child of an alcoholic can increase the risk of underage drinking. Also, the young brain allows a teen to consume more alcohol than an adult could before experiencing negative side effects such as loss of coordination, drowsiness and hangover. This also means they can do more damage to their brain before they fall asleep or black out, and there can be less incentive to quit due to negative effects. 

Effects of Underage Drinking

Because the brain doesn’t finish developing until adulthood (around age 25), teens are at increased risk of cognitive impairment when they drink. Scientists are learning more every year about how alcohol can impact the growing brain. Drinking alcohol as a teen can have a significant impact on memory, impulse control, and problem-solving ability. In many cases, the brain has shown to be able to recover from this earlier damage, but teens who begin drinking early will find the habit harder to kick. Excessive drinking at a young age can also cause liver damage, and it can affect the production of hormones needed for growth and the development or reproductive systems.  

What Can I Do as a Parent?

Model responsibility – Environment plays a huge role in how kids make choices about alcohol. Parents and other family members should consider how they can model responsible alcohol use. Even joking about excessive alcohol use or complaining about needing a drink can send messages to kids to not take alcohol seriously. 

Ask, don’t assume – Don’t assume what your child does or does not know about alcohol use, binge drinking, or how alcohol affects the brain. Rather than jumping into a lecture, ask open-ended questions (not yes or no questions) about what your teen knows about alcohol and how it affects the brain. If they feel that they have an opportunity share, you might learn more about alcohol use among their peers and the myths they have picked up about alcohol use. 

Plan together – Chances are your teen will encounter peers using alcohol while they are under age. Ask them how they already handle pressure from their peers and what has worked. Ask they how they’d like to plan responsibly to deal with the pressure of alcohol use before you make suggestions. When they go out, have a plan for how they can leave and reassure them that they can always contact you if they feel uncomfortable or need a ride. 

It’s never too soon to start talking with your teen about alcohol and the risks of underage drinking. When you model responsible behavior and communicate calmly, you give your teen a better chance to start making smart choices about their mind and body. What steps can you take today to start the conversation with your teen?