Learning About Alcohol Use Disorder and Your Teen

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What is alcohol use disorder?

If a teen has alcohol use disorder, it means that they drink alcohol even though it's causing harm to themselves or others.

Alcohol use disorder can range from mild to severe. The more symptoms of this disorder your teen has, the more severe it may be. Teens who have it may find it hard to control their use of alcohol.

Teens who have this disorder may argue with others about how much they're drinking. Their schoolwork or job may be affected because of drinking. They may drink when it's dangerous or illegal, such as when they drive. Or they may engage in unsafe sex. This can lead to pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Their drinking may increase their risk of getting hurt or being in a car crash.

Teens may also have a strong need, or craving, to drink and feel like they must drink just to get by. It may get harder for your teen to say "no" to drinking. Your teen may start to find alcohol more fun than anything else. Or your teen may want to stop drinking but can't. Your teen's body may get used to alcohol. This is called physical dependence.

Teens may think that a drink or two is okay, even if it's illegal. Or they may think that it's okay if they're only drinking on the weekends. They may even think that binge drinking is okay. But teens who drink are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder than people who start drinking later in life.

Over time, drinking too much alcohol may cause health problems. These problems may include high blood pressure, liver problems, and problems with digestion.

Why do teens drink alcohol?

Teens may drink alcohol for many reasons. They may want to:

  • Fit in with friends or certain groups.
  • Feel good.
  • Seem more grown up.
  • Rebel against adults.
  • Escape problems. For example, teens may drink to try to:
    • Avoid the symptoms of mental health conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or depression.
    • Ease feelings of insecurity.
    • Forget about emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.

Why is it important to recognize alcohol use and address it?

Alcohol use affects the brain and causes changes in your teen's alertness, perception, movement, judgment, and attention. These changes may make your teen more likely to:

  • Risk their health and life. Alcohol use is a leading cause of death and injury from car crashes, suicide, violence, and drowning.
  • Have unprotected sex. This can lead to pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
  • Be involved in a crime. (And remember that the underage use of alcohol is also illegal.)
  • Have trouble at school or drop out of school.
  • Have health problems because of alcohol use.

How do you know if your teen is drinking?

You may worry that your teen is drinking if your teen becomes withdrawn or negative. But remember that these behaviors are common for teens. Don't accuse your teen unfairly. Try to discover why your teen's behavior has changed by telling your teen that you are concerned.

Look for a pattern or a number of changes. Your teen may be drinking alcohol if your teen:

  • Pays less attention to how they dress and look.
  • Is eating less and losing weight.
  • Has red and glassy eyes and often uses eyedrops and breath mints.
  • Is doing worse in school or is skipping school.
  • Seems to be hiding things from you and acts sneaky.
  • Withdraws from your family and old friends. Your teen may have new friends that your teen doesn't want you to meet.

What can you do to prevent your teen from drinking?

  • Be a role model. Your attitude toward alcohol is one of the greatest influences on whether your teen will drink. If you drink alcohol, do it in moderation.
  • Learn about alcohol. Find out what the signs of drinking are. Learn how alcohol can harm your teen's growth and development.
  • Share your beliefs. Teens need to know what you think about important issues, including alcohol use. Talk with your teen about what drinking can do physically and emotionally. If you have a family history of alcohol use disorder, talk with your teen about their increased risk.
  • Stay connected. Set times when the family is expected to be together, such as at mealtimes. Plan family outings or other family-fun activities. Let your teen know that you value them and that they contribute to the family. Get to know your teen's friends, and know where your teen is at all times. Be awake and talk to your teen when your teen comes home at night.
  • Be fair and consistent. Find a mix between supervising your teen and giving them privacy and independence. Set rules, and let your teen know what will happen if the rules are broken. Always follow through and discipline your teen if your teen breaks the rules. But don't make the consequence too severe for the rule.
  • Encourage activities. Find things your teen likes to do, and keep your teen busy with those things. Sports and playing in the school band are two examples.

How can you help your teen say no?

You can teach your teen these ways to say no if your teen is offered a drink.

  • Look the person in the eye and say, "No thanks." Sometimes that is all you need to do. Say it as many times as you need to. Also ask the person not to ask you again: "I'm cool with my decision, so don't bother me again."
  • Say why you don't want to drink. Here are some examples: "I don't like how I act when I'm drinking," "I like to know what I'm doing," "If my parents find out, they'll take my car away," or "I have to practice with my band tomorrow."
  • Walk out. It's okay to leave a party or group where others are drinking.
  • Offer another idea. "I'd rather play video games" or "Let's listen to some music." By doing this, you might also prevent your friend from drinking.
  • Ask for respect. Make it clear that you don't want to drink and that continuing to ask you is showing no respect for your opinions. "I don't give you a hard time, so why are you giving me a hard time?"
  • Think ahead. If you think you might go someplace where people are drinking, don't go. But if you do go, think in advance about what you will do if someone offers you a drink.

How is alcohol use disorder treated?

Some teens are able to stop drinking with help from a school alcohol education program or a counselor. Treatment also can include group therapy. Teens who have moderate to severe alcohol use disorder may need medical treatment. They may need to stay in a hospital or treatment center.

Treatment focuses on more than alcohol. It also helps your teen cope with the anger, frustration, sadness, and disappointment that often happen when a person tries to stop drinking.

Treatment also looks at other parts of your teen's life, like relationships with friends and family, school and work, medical problems, and living situation. It helps you and your teen find and manage problems. Treatment helps your teen take control of life so that your teen doesn't need to drink alcohol. Family counseling often is part of treatment.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.