When we think “alcoholic,” we really don’t picture teenagers. We think they’re too young to have developed a dependency on alcohol. We assume it’s not really that easy for them to get ahold of alcohol, so how could they have a need to drink on a daily basis?
Most of the time teenagers are not daily drinkers, if they drink at all. If they do have alcohol with their friends, they’re occasional party-situation drinkers. Still, if you ask your teenager, they can all name one or two other teenagers who has a reputation for “always” being drunk.
These are the teens I worry about as a therapist. These are the teens who come back to school each Monday and tell everyone else about how they were “so f***ed up this weekend” that they can’t remember anything. They don’t realize this is blackout drinking. Blackout drinking has a very, very high correlation with future alcoholism.
These are the adolescents who don’t know how to stop. Every single time they drink the only thing that stops them is their body. They either start vomiting, or they pass out. Otherwise they are continuing to take shots, sip a beer, or have a some sort of mixed drink.
The teenagers who often develop alcoholism are the ones who don’t know how to be at a social gathering without alcohol. If they go bowling with friends, they bring a flask so everyone can take shots. If they go to a school dance, they mix rum in their cokes at the restaurant before the dance. They also know where the after party will be held. They are completely convinced they are just being social, but they are actually developing a frightening alcohol dependency.
Most people who becomes daily drinkers start with binge drinking weekends while they are teenagers. They get so they binge drink every weekend. Eventually they look for a “kickback” or party during the week from time to time. Before they realize it, they might steal just a few sips of mom and dad’s alcohol to relax at the end of a hard day. Eventually they are drinking daily.
Teenagers can be completely dependent on alcohol. They can have physical withdrawals just like an adult can. They can be addicted enough to need a physical detox under the supervision of a medical doctor. They can need rehab for alcoholism just like an adult.
It’s really important to keep an eye on your teenager. If you notice they want to party all the time, and seem restless when there isn’t a party, it’s reasonable to worry a little bit. If all the friends surrounding them use alcohol, and have a cavalier attitude about it, it’s another reason to be concerned. Be careful not to look the other way and just assume teenagers party. It’s true, they do. However, most of them that do party really only use alcohol once a month or so. Even then, those that do rarely drink to the point where they are throwing up or passing out. That tends to be reserved for the adolescents who are at high risk of addiction.
If this describes your child, I imagine you must feel very scared. It seems like all your efforts to control their behavior are fruitless. It is really overwhelming. Oftentimes this is the point at which getting professional help for your teen (if they will cooperate) and for yourself (especially if your teenager doesn’t comply with treatment) can be really important.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT