Adolescent Alcoholics: An Oxymoron?

by Leah on September 21, 2012

Here’s a disturbing statistic that I came across:  “Approximately 10-15 million people in the U.S. alone can be classified as alcoholics. About 4.5 million of them are adolescents.”

Wait—nearly half of all alcoholics in the U.S. are adolescents?! That’s scary. But is it possible that what is being characterized as alcoholism is rather the temporary reckless abandon that goes along with adolescence? How many of these alcoholic adolescents grow out of their alcohol use, and how many spiral down, Britney Spears/Lindsay Lohan/Amanda Bynes style? That would be interesting—and important–to know.

Is it truly possible for an adolescent to be an alcoholic? Judging from some of the interviews on our blog, it seems that for some women, they knew from their first sips that alcohol cast an unusually potent spell:

“I knew from a very young age that alcohol affected me differently than others – not all others, and I could spot a fellow booze-hound instantly in any crowd.” –Ann Leary

“[I had my first drink when I was] thirteen. Kentucky straight. Three or four amber bottles were lined up on my friend’s lowboy dresser. Her mother, far more lax than mine, bought the liquor for us. I poured myself a few drinks, mixing them with something classy like RC Cola, then wandered around the house in a state of oafish bliss. I felt like I’d ingested a magic potion that would solve all my problems. Emotional and social problems, at least. In my next memory, I was crawling up my friend’s slick wooden steps on all fours, with a limp smile, thinking, “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this sooner?” –Kassi Underwood

“[I had my first drink when] I was 13. The 28-year-old who worked at the pizza place across the street from The Middle School gave me and my best friend a free pitcher of beer. I loved the effect from the very first sip. I was so uncomfortable in my own skin and that first drink made me feel like everything was right in the world. I silently vowed to myself I would continue drinking for the rest of my life.” –Eva Tenuto

So what’s a parent to do—empty the liquor cabinets? (Well, yes, since that’s where many a teen seems to get their first taste). But you can’t go around your city or town emptying out all the liquor cabinets.)

Many people may think it’s fine, and preferable, given the drinking-saturated culture we live in, for teens to have their first sips early and at home, under their parents’ supervision. In an article on The Week, a study is cited that says one-third of third graders (who participated in one study) had tried “beer, wine, or in some cases, even hard liquor” at home. Their parents’ rationale? They’re going to do it anyway, so they might as well learn at home.

Is this really the best tactic?

According to experts quoted in The Week, “Numerous studies over the last several years have found that ‘early-onset’ drinking is a ‘known primary risk factor for problem drinking during adolescence’…Teen brains have underdeveloped ‘brakes,’ making teens more likely to mimic their peers’ dangerous behavior when partying, rather than the moderate drinking styles of parents at the dinner table.”

The answer, according to Ralph Hingson, of  the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is to “try and delay exposure to alcohol for as long as possible.”

Tim Stockwell, director of Canada’s Center for Addictions Research of British Columbia says, in The Week, that an important early predictor of addictive behavior is the age at which kids first get drunk.

What do you think is a reasonable age for a first taste of alcohol–the legal drinking age, or younger?

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