Alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. And the problem doesn’t discriminate: it negatively impacts teens of every background, no matter where they live. The problems that result can be far-reaching and affect an adolescent’s life well into adulthood. Parents must learn about binge drinking to protect their teens, whether your children are living at home, in college, or working.
Health Consequences of Binge Drinking
Drinking too much too quickly — binge drinking — is linked to a large number of serious health complications. Among the risks are: heart disease, inflammation of the pancreas, and exposure to sexually transmitted infections. When individuals drink excessively they also increase the likelihood of getting seriously injured. Car accidents, falls, and burns are common.
Additional negative outcomes involve a greater likelihood of smoking and violent behavior. Excessive drinking is also connected to memory loss. If heavy drinking takes place over the long-term, it can slow communication between neurotransmitters in the brain and decrease the ability to learn. This in turn may lead to poor performance in school.
Causes of Binge Drinking
Koren Zailckas had her first shot when she was 14. She liked the taste, but what propelled her to keep drinking was a newfound sense of fearlessness and belonging. Alcohol made it easier for her to make friends and flirt with boys. Drinking became a vice and a crutch. Binge drinking became her norm and she continued abusing alcohol in college and after she graduated.
“I was always drinking to get drunk,” she admits. “It suddenly wasn’t OK with me anymore when I left a club one night, drunk, with a friend. We ended up sharing a cab with a few boys we didn’t know. And it dawned on me: I didn’t know their names. I didn’t know the address of their apartment. I was out of college. I was supposed to be a grown up. This realization, all of it, frightened me.”
Zailckas sought therapy and began writing about her experiences. Her memoir, Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, was a sensation. It cracked open conversations about excessive drinking everywhere: in schools and bars, in dorms and office buildings. How much has changed in the 13 years since Smashed was published? For one, Zailckas is now a 39-year-old mother of three.
“There are lessons for my daughters and my son. There’s information I can share about how quickly our communication skills go fuzzy, how easily we become unable to say what we want or don’t want. I hope they view my experience as a cautionary tale.”
There are several additional reasons why older teens and young adults may drink to excess.
The below are five common causes:
- Peer Pressure. Teens and young adults may be especially vulnerable to the influence of peers. Both groups are searching for a sense of belonging. Peer pressure may take various forms including offers to drink or simply observing how others behave around alcohol. Despite the persuasive power of these friendships, it’s important to remember that parents have even more influence than peers. Another essential point to keep in mind is that many young people drink to excess because they wrongly assume their peers are drinking that heavily, too.
- Stress. When teens don’t learn safe ways to cope with stress, some turn to unwanted behaviors to find relief, including binge drinking. Parents are well-positioned to teach or suggest positive stress-relieving habits and activities. Some of the most effective are eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising, and having healthy ways to release emotions and to temporarily escape from them . Many teens benefit from creating a personalized stress management plan.
- Genetics. DNA can play a role in whether teens and young adults abuse alcohol. It’s important to note that there is not one specific gene for alcoholism. Overall, genetics may affect the risk for alcohol dependence and alcohol-associated diseases. Because of this, if there is alcoholism in the family, it’s likely best to avoid drinking altogether.
- Family. Parents play a critical role in teen development, and that’s also true when it comes to an adolescent’s relationship with alcohol. The example parents set matters. Tweens and teens model their behavior after their parents’ patterns of consumption, including how much they drink and how often.
- Marketing. Teens exposed to alcohol-specific marketing are more likely to engage in binge drinking. These ads aren’t just on TV. Brands advertise on the radio, on billboards, and spend enormous budgets bringing audiences to their websites and social media channels.
Steps to Take If You Know (or Think) Your Teen is Binge Drinking
First, it’s wonderful you are paying close attention and willing to help. Binge drinking can sometimes be a symptom of a more serious problem – either one that is happening right now or one that will develop in the years ahead.
Here are a few immediate actions you can take:
- Watch & Listen. If you’re concerned about binge drinking, be on the lookout for shifts in your teen or young adult’s behavior, health, mood, hygiene, and appearance. Another marker to keep track of is performance in school or at work. Are your child’s grades falling? Is your teen able to keep a job? Read more here.
- Have Conversations. It’s important to talk directly with your teen. Before you launch into a discussion, though, get educated about the facts. This will make you feel more empowered and you’ll likely have better results. Don’t yell. Stay calm. Listen. Make sure your time together centers on the concerns you have for their safety. Find more strategies here.
- Prep Them for Help. To get positive results, set your adolescent up for success. Do this by preparing them to seek professional help. Make it clear treatment is valuable and effective. Reinforce that seeking support is an act of strength not weakness. Tell them they’re not alone. Learn additional tips here.
The Time is Now: Getting Support
If your teen is binge drinking, you’re not the only parent who needs expert guidance. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) operates a toll-free phone number you can call for educational materials and treatment options in your state. The number is: 1-800-662-HELP (4357). If you prefer to research help online, visit SAMHSA.
We know individuals tend to drink the most in their late teens and early 20s. This age group is also more likely than others to engage in binge drinking on at least one occasion, in the past month. It’s critical parents take drinking to excess seriously. It’s not an acceptable rite of passage. Parents must steer their teens in the right direction and make sure they stay healthy and safe.