Teenagers and Alcohol

In many societies, alcohol has come to be viewed as the most socially-acceptable of drugs. For many teenagers, consequently, learning to use and manage alcohol is seen as a normal part of the growing-up process, and the experience of becoming drunk a kind of rite of passage. The result of social acceptance, however, is a kind of collective down-playing of the dangers of alcohol, both in terms of the drug itself and in terms of the increased risks it brings to other activities.

We begin our consideration with a look at the basic facts about alcohol.

  • Alcohol is a drug.
  • It is a depressant.
  • It is addictive.

When a person consumes an alcoholic drink, about a third of the alcohol is absorbed immediately into the bloodstream through the stomach wall, whilst the remaining two-thirds is absorbed more slowly through the small intestine. Once in the bloodstream, the alcohol circulates the body where it can affect all its organs, but its primary focus is the brain and central nervous system. As a depressant, alcohol acts to slow down the processes of the human body. Initially, it inhibits the area of the brain responsible for self-consciousness, which means the person can experience a short-lived sense of freedom, and which leads to alcohol sometimes being seen mistakenly as a stimulant. However, after this initial effect, its depressant nature becomes more readily apparent in symptoms like slurred speech, unsteadiness in standing or walking, reduced inability to process information, impaired memory and drowsiness. Over-exposure to the drug can have serious consequences, including suppression of breathing, coma and death.

Brain scans have confirmed the depressant nature of alcohol, which acts to suppress the activity of the pre-frontal cortex: the area of the brain responsible for decision-making. The initial experience of freedom from inhibition is one of the features of alcohol that contributes to its highly addictive nature, helping people relax in social situations they might otherwise find stressful. Those who are unable to control their response to the drug’s addictive nature are known as alcoholics, who require alcohol to sustain their day-to-day functioning. The long-term damaging effects of alcohol on the human body are both well known and well documented.

The legal minimum age for drinking alcohol varies between countries. Whereas 13 is widely given as the average age for a first drink, an article published in The Guardian at the beginning of 2018 claimed for the UK that, “… 14% of girls and 20% of boys had tried alcohol at the age of 11”. Furthermore, the article went on to claim, “… the latest findings show that overall almost half of teenagers had tried alcohol by age 14”. The rise in binge drinking (usually defined as more than 5 drinks in a session) amongst older teenagers during the last decade has given rise to considerable societal concern.

The dangers associated with drinking alcohol for teenagers fall mainly into two categories: the possible effects of the alcohol on the developing teenage brain and body; and exposure, as a result of the alcohol consumption, to activities riskier than those to which the teenagers would ordinarily be exposed. Much has been learned over the past decade through brain research, about the major phase of human brain development that occurs during the teenage years until the mid-twenties. This phase of extraordinary brain development occurs coincidentally with the time period which, for many, is the heaviest period of exposure to alcohol of their entire lives. As one Australian publication warns, “Drinking alcohol can cause irreversible changes to the developing brain, particularly to the area of the brain that is responsible for rational thinking. Damage to this part of the brain during its development can lead to learning difficulties, memory problems, and impaired problem solving.”

Alongside the health-related dangers of alcohol, there is the element of risk that comes from engaging in certain activities whilst under the influence of alcohol. Top of the list is driving, or being a passenger of someone, under the influence of alcohol. Teenagers are also more likely, when under the influence of alcohol, to engage in unprotected sexual activity, to become the perpetrators or victims of sexual assaults, to become involved in violent incidents, to commit self-harm or suicide.

Advice for Parents

In light of the widespread availability and social acceptance of alcohol in many societies, on the one hand, and of the dangers outlined above, on the other, the best advice to parents is twofold. Firstly, delay as long as possible the initial use of alcohol by your teenager. Secondly, when delay is no longer a feasible option, stress the importance of the safest possible use.

Delay initial exposure to alcohol. This advice is strongly rooted in the effect of alcohol on the teenager’s developing brain. As the article cited earlier from Reachout.com states with regard to the teenage brain, “… the longer your teenager delays using alcohol, and the less they drink, the better their brain functioning will be now and in later life.” The findings of teenage brain research are still relatively new, but as they receive further confirmation, and as they become more widely known, I would expect the drive to delay the initial exposure of teenagers to alcohol also to intensify. For years, one of the favoured approaches of many parents was to introduce their teenagers to alcohol a little at a time in the safety of the home environment. The results of an Australian study reported in The Lancet in early 2018 reached the conclusion that “There is no evidence to support the practice of parents providing alcohol to their teenagers to protect them from alcohol-related risks during early adolescence”. In fact, the study’s findings “strongly suggest that parental supply of alcohol to adolescents does not protect against future alcohol-related harm, and might in fact increase risk.”

Safe use. Regardless of the strategies used by parents to delay the use of alcohol by their teenagers, there comes a time for most when teenagers decide to try it for themselves. From this point on, the role of the parent shifts to trying to ensure the safest possible use. This includes (at the very least):

  • making teenagers aware of the effects of alcohol on the human brain and body;
  • giving advice on maintaining an acceptable level of consumption;
  • suggesting how to resist peer pressure to drink more or to excess;
  • making clear the dangers of binge drinking;
  • agreeing sensible transport arrangements to and from parties;
  • making it clear to your teenagers that they remain responsible for their actions towards others even when under the influence of alcohol;
  • assuring teenagers that you are always there for them whatever their situation;
  • putting in place emergency arrangements for you to “rescue” them at a moment’s notice from situations where they feel they might be in danger.

Role model a responsible use of alcohol. However strong a parent’s words about alcohol and its dangers, the way their parents handle alcohol will have more effect on the teenager. Teenagers notice the discrepancies between the words and actions of their parents. Such are the dangers to teenagers from the misuse of alcohol, however, that parents will want to avoid sending mixed messages about its use, about drinking and driving, and about all the other areas where alcohol impinges on social behaviour.

Communicate openly about alcohol and related issues. Teenagers may view their parents as old-fashioned or party-spoilers when they communicate about alcohol, but sometimes that’s what being a parent demands. Parents have to accept that sometimes their teenagers make decisions that go against their best advice, but parents can ensure that their teenagers make those decisions with full knowledge of the dangers, effects and possible consequences.

Keep safety the number one priority. A late night phone call from your teenager because their driver has been drinking and they do not want to get into the car with them is certainly inconvenient and not what you wanted after a long week at work. However, it is the kind of phone call that I would rather receive and respond to than have a visit from the police after a serious or fatal accident. Your teenagers need to know that on the few occasions they feel they have to make that call, you will respond and that they will not be in trouble for having made the call.

Advice for Teachers and Schools

Make clear information available. If they are so minded, teenagers can find information on the internet to support any stance they choose to adopt on alcohol. Parents can sometimes struggle to know good sources of information, as opposed to opinion. One way schools can support teenagers and their parents is to keep and make available, both to students and their parents, reliable information about alcohol, its effects and dangers, warning signs of alcohol dependence, where to find help if it is needed, etc. Reliable and easily accessible, up-to-date information can be an invaluable resource and a means of ensuring that discussions between parents and teenagers commence from a common starting point.

Be alert to the warning signs of alcohol-related issues. Teachers will often see the signs of alcohol-related problems in school, but schools need to ensure that teachers know what signs to look for, whom to tell, and what to do if they see those signs. This is an area of student care where regular and informed professional development of the whole teaching staff can make a big difference.

Have clear policies about alcohol and enforce them. Students, parents and teachers all need to know what happens if a student brings alcohol into school or attends school-related events whilst under the influence of alcohol. To be effective, such policies need to be communicated clearly and regularly, and they need to be enforced.

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