Despite laws in every U.S. state banning the sale or serving of alcohol to people under 21, as many as half of American adolescents take their first drink before even completing middle school. Thirty percent of twelfth graders may drink three or more times a month, and 11% of alcohol in the United States is consumed by 12–20-year olds. More than 600,000 adolescents under 18 have alcohol use disorder. And over 5 million people under 21 may engage in the high-risk behavior of binge drinking (4–5 drinks in 2 hours—official health recommendations are a maximum of 1–2 drinks in 24 hours) at least monthly.
Even among adults, the ease of obtaining alcohol sends more people to alcohol detox hospitals than to heroin treatment centers, cocaine treatment providers, methadone detox centers or any other place specializing in less “respectable” drugs. But underage drinkers run special risks. Aside from the potential legal consequences if caught, basic facts of human development make it inevitable that some of alcohol’s negative effects will be felt harder by younger drinkers.
1. Every year, there are 4,000–5,000 alcohol-related fatalities among Americans under age 21.
You can probably guess that many of these are due to motor vehicle crashes. Other lethal under-the-influence possibilities include:
- Drowning (it’s all too common to combine drinking with recreational boating or beach parties)
- Wandering into traffic or other “fools rush in” situations
- Violent fights
- Suicide attempts
- Alcohol poisoning from binge drinking
Plus, people under the influence of alcohol are more likely to commit crimes or engage in unsafe sex. While not usually fatal, these actions can have life-shattering consequences
Of course, there are also many alcohol-related fatalities among older drinkers—but the underage, and even most 21–25-year-olds, are especially prone to reckless behavior because their brains’ “caution” regulators aren’t yet fully developed. When youth’s natural risk-taking tendencies are augmented by alcohol’s inhibition-lowering, judgment-impairing effects, the result may be any number of extremely dangerous actions.
2. Adolescent mood swings and the depressant effects of alcohol are a dangerous combination.
Every parent of a teenager knows that major hormonal changes mean frequent moodiness, irritability and self-doubt. If that can be hard on parents, it’s worse for the adolescent, who like many an adult may be tempted to “drink away” frustration and despair. Unfortunately, the “take a drink” solution is not only temporary, it ultimately makes bad feelings worse. Although it’s not clear whether drinking can in itself turn gloomy moods into genuine medical depression, one-third of people with medical depression also have drinking problems—and teenagers who have even temporary depression are twice as likely as other teens to drink. And, people who have both depression and alcohol problems are more likely to commit suicide.
Aside from concerns about immediate dangerous behavior, the mood swings of adolescence are the brain’s way of teaching itself to regulate emotional and physical functions on the adult level. Interfering with this natural process through alcohol intake may mean that impulse control and physical coordination never fully develop.
3. Underage drinkers are more likely to become addicted.
The younger people start drinking, the greater risk they run of developing all-out alcohol use disorder—another side effect of interfering with the brain’s natural maturing process. Drinkers who start really young—before age 15—have a 16% chance of becoming addicted, compared to a 1% chance for those who begin close to legal drinking age.
Once alcohol addiction develops, getting off it is not a pleasant experience. It means headaches, vomiting, fever, mental confusion and often the need for alcohol detox medication to keep more dangerous symptoms from developing. It means around three months of inpatient care recalibrating one’s overall life situation. Most teenagers and young adults have more than enough stress without going through all that—it’s much easier to just abstain from alcohol, at least until legal drinking age.
If you’re a parent who suspects that your teenager or young adult child has a drinking problem:
- If your child is a minor in your custody, you have a right to insist he or she get treatment—but do it as firmly-but-kindly as possible. Cultivating mutual respect and cooperation will much improve the odds of a successful post-detox future.
- If your child is in the 18–20 age group (or even older), apply the same “tough love” approach as for other adults: no creating antagonism by threats or nagging; no enabling the addiction by lying for or cleaning up after the person; and, when you confront the situation directly, doing it with straight facts and calm expressions of your concern.
- Your chances of getting a legal adult to agree to detox treatment—or a minor to cooperate with it—improve if you broach the topic when your child is most likely to prove agreeable (usually when they’re sober and life-with-drinking is looking its worst), and if you have a specific detox program ready to recommend. You’ll need to do more advance research than simply Googling “drug rehab Orange County” or even “Orange County detox adolescents alcohol California”: confirm in advance that the place has been in business for some time, has a good reputation and is staffed by people with established medical credentials—then, visit the place personally to make certain. (With a minor, it can work even better to have two or three options in mind and take your child to visit each personally, leaving the final “which place” decision to him or her.)
- Yes, your child does need a professional detox program: “home detox” is never safe with any addiction, and alcohol addiction is among the most dangerous conditions to try it with. (At most heroin treatment centers, methadone detox centers and other places specializing in opiate treatment, patients only develop agonizing but non-lethal flulike symptoms; with alcohol, there’s a significant risk of seizure or cardiac arrest.) Often, alcohol detox medication is required to help a patient through withdrawal, and a licensed MD has to write the prescription.
- When detox is officially over, long-term recovery has only begun. Be prepared to offer your child your best support even when you find it annoyingly inconvenient to attend family therapy or ban wine from your house.
And a final note, for parents of underage kids who don’t drink: your best chance for keeping it that way is to maintain a respectful, open-communication atmosphere; be your kids’ best supporter whatever happens—and, perhaps, put aside all “do as I say, not as I do” thoughts and make your home an alcohol-free zone.
Inland Detox, top source of inpatient drug rehab in the Los Angeles vicinity, is located less than two hours away in the Temecula Valley. If you or your teenager need help with alcohol detox or recovery from any other chemical dependence, please call (888) 739-8296.