It’s been a rough year and you need a break. Your friend invites you to a party Friday night and you’re ready to go. You know there will be alcohol, and you think that will be the perfect way to release the tension and stress you’ve been feeling. You don’t drink regularly, so you know one night isn’t going to hurt.
Years later you find yourself struggling to concentrate in Anatomy class. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon and you’ll be done with school in a half-hour. All you can think about is running home and grabbing a quick drink before you head to soccer practice. A drink always takes the edge off.
As you’re staring off into space, trying to stay awake, you hear your teacher mention something about the lack of brain development from alcohol consumption. Your mind starts to wonder and you ask yourself, “Can a teenager be an alcoholic?”
The answer to your question is, “Yes!” Teenagers can become alcoholics. By definition, alcoholism, now diagnosed as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), is when someone can’t manage how much or how frequently they drink alcohol. As a result, alcohol has a negative effect on their life.
Alcoholism is different from alcohol abuse. Some teens will only drink occasionally and will be able to control their drinking. Alcoholism involves the following:
- Excessive consumption – Using more alcohol for longer periods than intended and drinking to the extent where it impairs both physical and mental functions.
- Physical dependence – Craving alcohol so much that you’re not able to stop consuming it, even though it has a negative effect on your mental and physical health. Your body has developed a physical dependence on alcohol.
- Increased tolerance – Consuming more alcohol in order to have the same intoxicating effects.
- Withdrawal symptoms – Difficulties that occur when the effects of alcohol wear off, or when an alcoholic tries to stop drinking. Symptoms may include nausea, sweating and increased anxiety.
- Life management – Problems managing life issues due to regularly drinking alcohol. Needs to drink alcohol in order to function normally.
Alcoholism at any age significantly impairs a person’s ability to reason, make decisions and judge what’s going on around them. This is exacerbated, or heightened, in teens because your brain is not fully developed. Making “adult decisions” with a lack of personal experience, as well as an underdeveloped brain, increases the potential for risky behavior and accidents.
Your body’s reaction to alcohol
After drinking alcohol, it enters into your bloodstream through your stomach and small intestines. From there, it travels to your brain. Once it reaches the brain, the alcohol slows down your reaction time, makes you less coordinated, blurs your thinking and causes poor judgement.
A lot of people think that alcohol impacts teens the same as it does adults, so they often disregard underage drinking. Although there are many similarities, the fact is that your brain isn’t fully developed.
During adolescence, brain development rapidly increases. The brain of an adult who drank excessively as a teen can actually be smaller when it is fully developed. Extended alcohol use as a teen can reduce the size of your brain by 10%.
There are two areas of the brain that are significantly impacted from teenage alcohol consumption:
- Hippocampus – Pivotal in memory and learning formation. Therefore, teens that drink heavily can’t recall new information, nor can they create new, lasting memories. The hippocampus is super sensitive to alcohol at this age and may cause damage to nerve cells.
- Prefrontal lobe – Important for planning, judgement, impulse control, making decisions and language. This area of the brain is rapidly changing and growing in your teen years, therefore, alcohol consumption can negatively impact the development of millions of new connections, reducing cognition and the ability to learn new things.
If the damage to the brain is significant, it cannot be reversed. This damage also increases the risk of mood disorders and some other mental illnesses, as well as increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, liver disease and many cancers.
Signs that you’re struggling
- Sleep problems, fatigue, long periods of lethargy and low energy.
- Depression or other changes in mood.
- Withdrawing from others, spending more time alone and demanding privacy.
- Change in peer group. Reluctant to let your parents or anyone else get to know your new friends.
- Drop in grades or having other problems in school such as skipping school and missing classes.
- Uncharacteristic behavior problems such as not getting along with others, being quick to anger, increased rebelliousness, lying, defensiveness and irritability.
- Changes in appearance and a decline in self-care.
- Continuous partying and getting drunk. Feeling that it’s necessary to get drunk in order to have a good time.
- Bloodshot eyes or smaller pupils.
- Issues with attention, memory and poor concentration.
- Blackouts and not being able to account for or remember specific periods of time.
- Denying that you don’t have a problem, even when you’re drinking excessively.
- Presence of Alcohol. Haphazardly leaving empty bottle containers in your room, garbage or backpack. Having alcohol on your breath.
- Lack of coordination and having bruises, cuts and other minor injuries as evidence of little accidents that occur while under the influence.
- Slurred speech.
- Silly behavior or giddiness.
- Lack of involvement in things that used to interest you and bring you joy.
- Change in appetite.
- Stealing, especially alcohol or money to help pay for alcohol. Diluting alcohol to make it appear that it hasn’t been consumed.
Where alcoholism leads
Youth drink less often than adults do, but when they drink, they typically drink more. More than 90 percent of all alcoholic drinks consumed by young people are consumed through binge drinking. Our society emphasizes “binge” everything. “binge watching,” “binge study sessions,” “binge eating.” But binge drinking is a little more serious. Binge drinking, for a teen girl, is defined as having three or more drinks within two hours. Binge Drinking is the most harmful form of drinking, yet the party scene focuses on getting drunk, therefore teens are more likely to binge.
Alcohol is a significant factor in the death of many teens. Nearly half the deaths associated with alcohol are from motor vehicle accidents, the next largest bulk is murder, followed by suicide and other factors such as drowning, falling, alcohol poisoning and burning.
Starting to drink at an earlier age drastically increases the risk of becoming an alcoholic as an adult, which is a lifelong battle.
Because the brain of a teenager isn’t fully developed, oftentimes healing can only come from drastic measures and inpatient or outpatient recovery programs. If not, your family, counselor, teachers, coaches or youth group leader may need to place some strict rules on your life. Since alcohol consumption is illegal under the age of 21, some individuals are required, by law, to enforce a recovery program. Recovery programs can span from short term or long term residential treatment centers to 24-hour surveillance to support groups.
Start by simply telling your parents and your friends about your struggle with alcohol. The best next step is to make an appointment with your health care physician or a mental health doctor. Your doctor will be able to determine the best type of treatment for you.
If you’re too frightened to face healing, that’s a sign that you NEED to. It’s also a sign that you CAN handle the healing process. Healing of any kind is hard. That’s why Jesus healed every disease and affliction among the people while He was here on earth. He wants to heal you, but it’s best to seek help as soon as possible so your reliance on alcohol doesn’t destroy your life.
When looking for help, it’s important to get help from someone who specializes in adolescent treatment. There are a lot of treatment facilities for adults, but the need of a struggling youth is different than that of an adult. If you need help finding the right resource:
- Your school is the best place to start. If they don’t have a good substance abuse treatment program to recommend, then reach out to your school district.
- Your health insurance company can give you a list of mental health and substance abuse providers.
- Your parent’s employer may have an employee assistance program that you can get a referral from.
- Your county’s health department probably has some substance abuse services, or at least is another good resource. The country may title these services “alcohol and drug program” or “behavioral health” and they’re usually listed in their mental health services division.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator.
Alcoholism often has a root issue, so when treatment does occur, it needs to treat the WHOLE body, not just the issue of alcohol consumption. It’s important to factor academic, physical, mental, emotional, creative, personal, spiritual and social issues when healing from AUD. Much of the following are activities and concepts that your treatment program will encourage.
- Reward yourself
Find something that will help motivate you to find healing and increase your desire to participate in therapy. Perhaps you’ll treat yourself to something special after every therapy session, or you’ll establish a vision or dream of what you’ll be like when you’ve overcome your addiction. Consider a reward for milestones that you achieve throughout your healing process.
Sharing your thoughts, feelings and discoveries is incredibly helpful when it comes to finding healing. God created us to live in community, therefore, we need to rely on and turn to people around us. While group therapy can be incredibly helpful, it’s not always the best option. Depending on the root of your alcoholism, hanging out with people who participate in the same disordered behavior may actually encourage continued negativity. Community doesn’t have to be like minded alcoholics, it can include people who love someone who’s also struggling with alcoholism, someone who has healed from alcoholism or someone who has lost someone to alcoholism.
- Replace triggers with something positive
Spend some time contemplating why you want to drink. Write down what you’re typically doing or how you’re feeling (and what led to that emotion) right before you start drinking. If you can pinpoint triggers, it’s easier to seek healing. Taking note of the actions or feelings that follow your drinking is important too.
Girls are more likely to drink in an effort to cope with negative emotions, family problems or due to peer pressure. Rather than seek the bottle, spend time journaling. Write all these factors into a journal or notebook and notice any patterns. What is causing these negative feelings? Write about your family problems. Describe why you feel the need to please your friends. Pray about what you discover. Journaling is a form of prayer, so really treat any time with God as a sacred time of healing.
Then, take these writings to a counselor, youth pastor, parent or friend. Ask them to help you find something or someone to replace those triggers. Perhaps a situation or activity that is contrary to what induces the desire. Being able to change the pattern that leads to alcohol consumption can bring a sense of control over the problem. However, it’s important to not just jump into another habit-driven behavior. You have to find healing deep within, not just on the surface.
Alcoholic drinking typically occurs between the hours of 3 PM and 6 PM – from the time school lets out until your parents come home from work. If you fall into this common trend, you need to find something else to do during this time:
- Go to a friend’s house (one who doesn’t drink).
- Do your homework at a coffee shop, the library or the office of your youth pastor.
- Volunteer at a local animal shelter, or anywhere you have a passion.
- Get involved with extracurricular activities.
- Stress management strategies
Stress management is a huge trigger for alcohol consumption. Take some time to learn some stress relievers:
- Pray, journal, read God’s Word.
- Take a bath or hot shower.
- Get a massage.
- Scream into a pillow.
Once you’re feeling a little more at ease, ask your parents, coach, counselor or teachers for some helpful stress management strategies. Then spend some time getting your life and your stress organized so you can tackle the things that are overwhelming. Everyone approaches stress management differently, so don’t get discouraged if someone’s idea doesn’t help you. Instead, keep asking God to guide you to the help you need so you can find peace. Your faith is actually a significant coping mechanism. Teens who use their faith in God to cope with stress, not only use alcohol less, but they also find more lasting healing.
There are nearly 200 scriptures that reference some form of healing. God wants you to be healed. He doesn’t want you to be weighed down with such devastation. Malachi 4:2 says, “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.”
- Niaaa.nih.gov (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism)
- Oas.samhsa.gov (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
- Aa.org (Alcoholics Anonymous – many AA groups have chapters exclusively for young drinkers)
- Alcohol.org (American Addiction Centers)
- Al-anon.org – Al-anon and Al-ateen are programs that support people who have been affected by someone struggling with Substance Abuse.
MADD.org (Mothers Against Drunk Driving)