It can start as young as 12, maybe because an older sibling thinks it’s fun to give their little brother or sister a drink. By ninth grade, curiosity about alcohol can lead to experimentation. By the time they’re a high school senior, most teens have had the opportunity to drink — perhaps because alcohol has been offered to them by friends, or they’ve been exposed to it at a party, or they’re skimming from their parents’ stash at home.
Not every teenager who tries a beer will become a habitual or problem drinker. But teen drinking remains “a massive public health issue,” says Dr. Jeffrey Cluver of Trident Medical Center, particularly since the teenage brain is not yet developed enough to prevent risky behavior, and teen drinking can open the door to other problems later on.
In general, alcohol use among teens has been on a decline since the 1980s, according to long-term, annual studies by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. That trend, though, appears to be plateauing. And in some cases, teens are replacing alcohol with other substances, such as marijuana or vaping.
According to the most recent study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 7.1 million Americans between the ages of 12 and 20 reported current alcohol consumption. Rates of binge drinking among teens hover at roughly 11 percent. And about 18 percent of high school seniors reported getting drunk, according to the Michigan study.
The good news is that some of those rates are near-historic lows; in 1996, for example, the rates of high school seniors who reported getting drunk was 34 percent. But given the easy access to alcohol — many parents have it readily available in the house — drinking remains a real concern, particularly as teens begin driving and going out without adults.
Alcohol “is pretty accessible,” says Cluver, a psychiatrist who is medical director of Trident’s Behavioral Health Program. “You’re talking about a legal substance, for the most part. If you’re curious and want to know how it tastes, or how it will make you feel, and you’re not really thinking about the consequences … then you’re talking about something that’s going to be a high risk for teens to want to sample.”
No regard for consequences
The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that’s involved in decision-making, and helping people avoid bad decisions. In teenagers, that frontal lobe is not fully developed — which often leads to a proclivity toward reckless behavior without regard for consequences. Add alcohol, which can even further reduce inhibitions, and the resulting mix is a volatile one.
“It becomes kind of a vicious cycle, where you’re drinking and thinking even less about consequences,” Cluver says. “Those two things feed off each other, and they can create a very dangerous situation.”
What drives teens to drink? Curiosity and peer pressure, of course, as well as television commercials and maybe even parents connecting beer with a good time. “If you tell your teenager that drinking is bad and unhealthy and they shouldn’t do it, and then the parents are occasionally drinking to excess or maybe even getting behind the wheel intoxicated — these are all things that kids notice,” Cluver says.
Ward Lassoe, a licensed professional counselor in Charleston who works regularly with adolescent boys, says teens can also use alcohol to dull feelings of isolation or social anxiety, school pressures or even issues with parents.
“That’s certainly not the only reason,” he adds, “but when I see what I would consider problem drinking, often the question is, what are they trying to numb?”
Drinking among teens crosses the line from curiosity into a problem, Lassoe says, when negative repercussions arise — such as being unable to get up for school, skipping school to drink, or even getting in fights — and yet the drinking doesn’t stop.
“Generally as humans, we understand negative consequences — don’t touch the stove, or you’ll get burned,” he adds. “But when drinking starts to become problematic is when the negative consequences happen, and the behavior continues.”
And those consequences can extend well beyond teenage years. People who try alcohol before age 15 are 6.5 times more likely to develop use disorders in adulthood, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. And those with a genetic predisposition to a condition like alcoholism “are at a much higher risk” of developing such a disorder if they start drinking young, Cluver adds.
Intervene sooner, not later
For parents, the battle against teen drinking begins with open communication and clear expectations. “There has to be a conversation. Things cannot be implied,” Cluver says. “I would not whisk my adolescent off to treatment if they tell me they’ve been to a party, but certainly if it becomes a repeated pattern, then intervening sooner rather than later is going to be critical.”
Parents should understand that kids often model their behavior, and set responsible examples. They should tell their teens if there’s a family history that includes a genetic predisposition toward conditions like alcoholism. And it’s also important to monitor the amounts of alcohol in the home.
“Most houses have alcohol in them, so that makes it a little more challenging,” Lassoe says. “So certainly be aware of what’s in your house, and keep an eye on things like changes in levels or the number of cans in the refrigerator.”
Parents should intervene, Cluver says, at the first hint that their teen’s drinking is becoming regular. The need for treatment such as counseling enters the picture when frequent alcohol use begins leading to behavioral issues or an inability to function normally, either at home or at school. But it all starts with a conversation.
“The best thing is open communication,” says Lassoe. “Obviously not lecturing, because no kid likes to listen to a lecture. But I think it’s about being open, and trying to address it in a healthy way.” LCP