Teens and Drinking

By April Wilson, LSW, Counselor at the Samaritan Counseling Center

Adolescence is a time of breaking away from parents, forming new friendships, and discovering what one really believes. It is also a time of taking risks. For a lot of teens this includes drinking. That is certainly the case here in the Vail Valley. A recent Eagle County Youth Coalition survey found that 31% of our teens report heavy episodic drinking in the prior month (consuming 5 or more drinks at one time). In the 2002 Monitoring the Future Survey conducted by the University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research, 58% of teens report they have been drunk by the time they are seniors in high school. Typically, the drinking accelerates when they go away to college, where 40 percent of students say that they binge on alcohol.

For many, adults and teens alike, alcohol is viewed as just a normal part of life. It has been noted in numerous studies that teens attitudes toward alcohol is greatly influenced by their parents usage and stated views. However, drinking as a teen and drinking as an adult are two very different things. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) these are some of the consequences that accompany teenage drinking.

Teens who drink are more likely to engage in sexual activity, have unprotected sex, or have sex with a stranger.

Teens who drink alcohol may develop a tolerance, causing them to drink more over time. Tolerance can lead to alcohol abuse and dependence. The highest rates of abuse and dependence on alcohol have been reported in young people in their late teens and early twenties.

More than three times the number of eighth-grade girls who drink heavily said they have attempted suicide compared to girls in that grade who do not drink.

Teens who drink may take risks that they would usually avoid. Risk taking behavior may be a result of damage to the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for decision-making and planning and does not mature until the early twenties. This damage may be irreversible.

Alcohol decreases teens' ability to pay attention.

Teens who drink alcohol can harm their memories because the area of the brain that stores memory, the hippocampus, is still developing during the teen years. In fact, the hippocampus of teen drinkers is smaller than that of their non-drinking peers.

Excess alcohol use can cause or mask other emotional problems, like anxiety or depression.

Alcohol problems stunt emotional development by masking the stress and anxiety that can be a normal part of adolescence, robbing young people of the opportunity to develop the coping skills they will need to succeed later in life.

Serious alcohol use among youth has significant neurological consequences. Alcohol damages areas of the brain responsible for learning and memory, verbal skills and visual-spatial cognition.

Teens who drink score significantly lower than their non-drinking peers on standardized tests.

As the above discussion illustrates, alcohol use by teens can be very serious. Talk to your children about alcohol use. Let them know about the dangers involved. If you are concerned about your teenager's drinking or your own drinking, get treatment. Treatment can provide the needed skills to stop drinking.