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How to Help an Alcoholic Teen

When someone you love is struggling with alcohol addiction, like your teen, it can be scary, lonely and overwhelming as you try to understand this chronic disease and find ways to help them seek recovery. For parents, finding out that they have a teen with alcohol use disorder can be devastating.

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Teenage Alcohol Use Disorder

In the U.S., alcohol is the most widely used drug among America’s youth. Drinking by 12- to 20-year-olds accounts for 11% of all the alcohol drank in the States.1 Further, of the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey’s sample of students in high school, in the 30 days prior to taking the survey:1,2

  • 8% drank one or more alcoholic drinks.
  • 5% binge* drank.
  • 5% of those who drove a vehicle in the 30 days prior to the survey drank and drove.
  • 5% rode with a driver that had drunk alcohol.

Binge drinking is defined as, for females, drinking at least 4 alcoholic drinks in a couple of hours and, for males, drinking at least five alcoholic drinks in a of couple hours.2

Based on the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, it was estimated that over 1.4 million 12- to 20-year-olds had an alcohol use disorder in the past year.3

It can be hard to know what to do if your child has a drinking problem. Even if your teen does not have an alcohol use disorder (AUD) currently, underage drinking has many potential consequences and may lead to an alcohol use disorder.1 If your underage teen is drinking at all, you should institute suitable consequences for underage drinking, and if you think that your teen has a significant drinking problem, you should get help from professionals.

Warning Signs of Teenage Alcohol Use Disorder

It can be difficult to know if your teen has a significant problem with alcohol. However, there are some warning signs that you can look for that may point to a drinking problem, such as:8

  • Is your teen trading in their old friends for new friends? Do they not want you to get to know their new friends?
  • Have their moods changed, such as suddenly getting angry, being defensive, and/or being irritable?
  • Do they have trouble remembering things? Are they having concentration difficulties?
  • Have they had slurred speech, incoordination, and/or bloodshot eyes?
  • Are they having issues at school, like missing class, getting in trouble, and/or getting poor grades?
  • Do they no longer care about things, such as their appearance and/or previous interests?
  • Have they stopped following your rules?
  • Have you found alcohol in their belongings and/or has their breath smelled like alcohol?

While these may be signs of an alcohol problem, they don’t necessarily mean one is present.8 The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) outlines criteria to diagnose an AUD. If a person drinks alcohol in a troublesome pattern which has considerably distressed or impaired that person (demonstrated through two or more of the eleven listed symptoms) in the past 12 months, then that individual meets criteria for an AUD. Some of the symptoms listed in the criteria include not succeeding in decreasing or managing drinking despite attempts to do so or persistently wanting to, craving alcohol, problems fulfilling important responsibilities due to regular drinking, and experiencing withdrawal.9

A healthcare professional can evaluate an individual for AUD.10

Ways to Prevent Alcohol Misuse among Teens

Strong relationships with your teen are one of the best ways to influence them in a positive way. Research shows that teens who feel like they have a close, supportive relationship with a parent or guardian tend to begin drinking at a later age. And in those that do drink, this supportive relationship can help protect them from alcohol-related problems. Other ways to prevent alcohol misuse include:8

  • Encourage open and honest conversation.
  • Know your child’s friends and their friends’ parents and guardians.
  • Help you teen learn how to say “no.”
  • Encourage fun, healthy alternatives to drinking.
  • Set clear rules about alcohol use, monitor use in your home, and set a good example by drinking responsibly in front of your teen, if you drink at all.

How to Talk to a Teen about Alcohol

If you have thought to yourself “my teen is an alcoholic”, it is important to seek professional help.4 How to talk to your teen about drinking too much alcohol may be difficult or uncomfortable, they may even try to dodge the topic, but research shows that parents and guardians have a substantial amount of influence on their teen’s actions.8 Even if your teen doesn’t want to talk, that doesn’t mean you should put it off. Starting the conversation is a first step to getting them the help they need. Here’s some tips for a constructive conversation:

  • Wait until your loved one is sober. They may be less willing to listen if they’re under the influence.
  • Choose a quiet, private setting with no distractions.
  • Express concern but avoid judgment or shame. Using “I” statements can help focus on how your teen’s drinking impacts you and others.
  • Remember that your teen’s feelings are valid too. Listen to their concerns and offer support.

Before talking with your teen, it may be helpful to speak with a healthcare provider who specializes in addiction to obtain guidance.8 They can help walk you through ways to support your teen without blame or lecturing. The types of confrontational interventions you see on TV can lead to shame and a refusal to get treatment. Instead, try to focus on creating a caring, supportive environment. See if your teen will talk to a doctor if they won’t talk to you.

Finding Teen Alcohol Treatment

Adolescents have some different treatment needs when it comes to problems with substance use than adults have. Look to programs that offer substance use disorder treatment that is customized to the youth’s needs. Screening for other mental illnesses should also occur and any identified should be treated alongside the substance use disorder(s). Other issues, such as safety and medical concerns and academic and social needs, should also be evaluated for and addressed if needed. As a parent or guardian, you can participate by giving emotional support, facilitating treatment (such as by scheduling appointments), and providing structure and supervision. Additionally, some treatments are family-based. 11

To find teen alcohol treatment near you, talk to your doctor or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 or visit their online treatment finder.



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