By Cristina Mestre
How big is the problem of alcohol use in teens?
A: While there has been a lot of attention to teen
cigarette and marijuana use in recent years, alcohol is
still the most widely used substance among teens. By age 18, 70 percent of teens have
tried alcohol. However, a statistic like this can be misleading. While a lot of
teens have tried alcohol, only a minority regularly use alcohol. This is
important to emphasize, since teens sometimes think that most of their peers
drink. If they do not drink, they may feel they are unusual. If they do
use alcohol, they may think “everybody does it,” and that is not true. High
school proms and graduation parties are viewed by some teens as a time when
alcohol is expected, so this presents an opportunity for parents and teens to
talk about alcohol use.
Has teen alcohol use increased in our society in recent years?
A: No, we have been making progress in reducing teen
alcohol use. The rates of teen alcohol use are much lower now than they were 10
or 15 years ago.
Is progress being made in understanding alcohol and teens?
A: While we have made progress in the past decade in
reducing teen drinking, there are many unanswered questions. Our research program is developing prevention approaches for pediatricians and other health
care practitioners, working on improving treatments, trying to determine short-term and long-term alcohol effects. For example, we have just
started a research project on alcohol and teen brain development that involves
our University of Pittsburgh team and four other research institutions.
At what point is alcohol use a problem for a teen?
A: For teens, I recommend discouraging any alcohol use.
Most teens do not drink alcohol. Compared to those who wait until they are
adults to start drinking, teens who do drink are at much greater risk of
developing alcohol problems. Even relatively small quantities of alcohol can
lead to impaired judgment and problems with coordination. Compared to adults,
teens become more intoxicated after using less alcohol. Teens also often have
difficulty controlling their alcohol use.
What are some of the risks and consequences associated with this abuse?
A: Each year about 5,000 young people lose their lives
because of underage drinking, primarily from car crashes. Alcohol intoxication
can also lead to impaired judgment, injuries from accidents, or risky behaviors
such as unprotected sex or intoxicated driving. Underage drinkers are also more
likely to be assaulted or hurt others by violent acts. Young people who drink
large quantities of alcohol can become poisoned by alcohol, and each year there
are some young people who die from alcohol poisoning.
What are alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence?
A: Some people who regularly drink alcohol will develop related
problems. The definitions of alcohol abuse
and dependence describe some of the consequences that can occur with alcohol
use. Abuse often involves school problems and conflicts with parents about
drinking. Dependence is more severe, and may involve teens spending an
increasing about of their time drinking to the exclusion of more constructive
activities. Many adults use alcohol occasionally without problems. For teens,
there is a closer relationship between regular drinking and problems. This is
one of the reasons that teens should be discouraged from drinking.
What are some ways to prevent alcohol problems in teens?
A: I suggest that parents encourage their teens to wait
until they are adults to experiment with drinking alcohol. Parent-teen
involvement and communication are very important and can be challenging. Teens
who feel they are supported by their parents are more likely to honestly
discuss alcohol. Parent supervision of teens is important, and communication
and supervision go together with teens. Also, parents who are struggling with
alcohol problems need to get help for themselves.
What should I do if I think my teen has an alcohol problem?
A: I suggest that parents who are concerned about their
teen’s alcohol use get some help.
There are many options for initiating assessment and treatment, including involving
your teen’s pediatrician, counseling from a variety of sources, professional
evaluation by a social worker or psychologist, or specialized evaluation at an
alcohol treatment program. Teens are
sometimes more willing to discuss their alcohol use with a doctor or other
professional, and the family can then work on a plan to address the problem.