The teen years are unique among the life stages in that more changes occur, physically, mentally, emotionally, during these few years than at any other time. The turbulence that such rapid changes can create, combined with the fact that adolescent brains are still developing until into the mid-twenties, makes it challenging for both kids and their parents.

Understanding the risk factors for teen alcohol abuse and addiction can help families navigate the potential landmines of this stage. We know that teen alcohol use is still on the rise, even more so during the pandemic. Our teen alcohol addiction treatment program in Pennsylvania provides a positive option for teens over the ages of 18 who struggle with alcohol. But heading teen abuse off at the pass is ideal, so let’s look at some causes.
Meanwhile, if you are already concerned and wish to talk to a professional about your teen, don’t wait. Reach out to Pennsylvania Teen & Adult Challenge (PAATC) by calling 844.442.8673 or using our online form.

Causes of Teen Alcohol Addiction

The “causes” of teen alcoholism are more accurately “influences” and “risk factors.” There is no guarantee that any one of them will cause your teen to abuse alcohol. We also can’t be sure that the absence of these risk factors means your teen won’t ever drink to excess. However, below are some top factors that are understood to influence outcomes for teens regarding alcohol addiction. Some risk factors are inherent to teen development, and others involve environmental influences.

1. Biology

A very significant risk factor for teen alcoholism is biology. There are several aspects of this biological influence on teen drinking. The teen brain continues to forge critical neural connections until age 25. Teenagers may not fully recognize that their actions have consequences, and their propensity for risk-taking and thrill-seeking can be seen as part of their protracted development into adulthood. They feel and look more like adults and behave in ways to prove they are independent by pushing boundaries and taking risks while still having little sense of the meaning of their actions beyond the moment’s experience.

Teen brains also have a different response to alcohol than adults, making it easier for drinking to escalate to alcohol addiction. A teenager can consume much more alcohol before the onset of negative consequences like the loss of coordination and hangover symptoms. This high tolerance may be a factor in teen binge drinking. Meanwhile, teens are even more sensitive to the positive feelings that come with drinking, like social ease, while their brains are more vulnerable to long-term damage from drinking, a perfect storm.

Of course, the ultimate biological risk factor for alcoholism is heredity. Being the child of an alcoholic increases the risk for teens to succumb to alcoholism up to ten times.

2. Psychology and Personality

Young people who start drinking at a very early age have exhibited certain personality traits and behaviors. Children with conduct problems exemplified by being hyperactive, aggressive, or unruly and others who are withdrawn, anxious, or depressed could be at significant risk of alcohol use and addiction.

The existence of an underlying, co-occurring behavioral health issue is not always easy to spot. However, it is critical to diagnose the condition properly to receive the most effective treatment. The overlap between social anxiety and drinking among teens is significant, as alcohol eases the symptoms and allows the teen to engage in social interactions. Other disorders, such as ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, can lead to self-medication using alcohol.

3. Normalization of Drinking

Our society broadcasts messages about drinking that are largely positive, using glamorous, fun, sexy, happy imagery and language. Families in which parents drink responsibly have an opportunity to model behavior around alcohol that will provide a positive example to their children. In homes where one or more adults drinks to excess, it sends a range of messages to the teen, such as:

  • Alcohol is a reward for hard work
  • It acts as a pain reliever
  • Using alcohol is the best way to celebrate
  • It is the best way to treat stress, depression, or nervousness

Children and adolescents absorb these lessons and model their own experimentation with alcohol on them.

4. Peer Influences

Friends are enormously important to teens and have a great deal of influence on their behaviors and values. The pressure to fit in and be “cool” is at an all-time peak during the teen years. Teenagers egg each other on and are experts at adopting “group-think.” To normalize or justify their own actions around substance use, they are likely to pressure friends and peers to join in. This stage of human development is unique in that, to a large degree, it can suspend much of a young person’s own internal moral compass in response to peer pressure.

5. Access

Alcohol is available. While young people cannot legally purchase it until they turn 21, alcohol is a legal substance. It is sold in grocery stores in many states and can be found in refrigerators and unlocked cabinets in most homes. Most teens can find a drink if they want because they have relatively easy access to alcohol. Teens know whose house has the most alcohol and the most easily accessed, whose parents “don’t care” if they drink, whose parents are not home, and when. There are far fewer barriers to accessing this addictive substance than acquiring street drugs, and occasional use can lead to abuse swiftly.

Learn More About Teen Alcohol Abuse and How PAATC Can Help

If you find you are navigating unfamiliar terrain within your family around teen alcohol abuse, PAATC can help you. Let us answer your questions, talk to you about the many options that can help your teen achieve sobriety and health, and reassure you that help is here. Call us at 844.442.8673 or fill out our online form today.

Pennsylvania Adult and Teen Challenge This article is written by the experts at Adult and Teen Challenge PA, a faith-based treatment program that began  in 1962 as a way to help those young people and adults who struggle with addiction get the help they need.