Your Teenager Drinks Alcohol or Does Drugs: What to do?

The teen years are often characterized by rebellious and other behaviors often considered to be bad behaviors. Such behaviors are usually provoked by raging hormones, dating problems, the desire for independence and many other causes. Much of this is part of growing up but, at best, it can be stressful and challenging to parents.

Maia Szalavitz is a science writer at Time magazine who has written books and articles about dealing with troubled young people. She writes that

If you suspect that your teen is using drugs or drinking and that this may be behind her bad behavior, it’s always important to keep things in context: although since the “just say no” era we’ve heard that any drinking or other drug use at all is a sign of serious trouble, in fact, most teens will try marijuana and drinking before they graduate high school. So it’s one thing if your daughter stays out past curfew and comes home appearing drunk once or twice yet has high grades and a generally good attitude, but quite another if she stays out later and later each week and her grades are plummeting. If your teen appears to be drunk once every other month, it’s a far different situation from his coming home wasted every day, It’s also important to know that most of the time marijuana use and drinking by tens doesn’t signal addiction.

Research demonstrates that the vast majority of people who drank or took drugs as teenagers or young adults do not become alcoholics or addicts. Only a tiny minority will not mature out of alcohol or drug abuse.

Parents who over-react risk the danger of doing more harm than good. Going into unnecessary treatment can be very damaging to young people, as the following letter illustrates.

I was put in several different treatment centers during 1985-1986 at the age of 14. Although I drank alcohol only three times and used marijuana twice. My denial of further usage was a Catch-22 for me. It ensured my place in treatment, because the "professionals" were operating under the belief that if I denied using I must be an alcoholic.

After being discharged unsuccessfully from one center because I would not admit that I was an alcoholic, I was admitted to an in-patient facility to help break through my denial. An interesting sidebar to this is that my parents were in a twelve step based treatment center at the time, so they had complete support for forcing me to find recovery.

At the last treatment center I was told that I could not go home until I admitted that I was an alcoholic and agreed to go to AA meetings.

At the age of 14, unsure of my identity and place in the world, I began to believe that I was wrong, maybe I was an alcoholic. I began to think that maybe the reason I couldn't remember using was because of "blackouts." So I agreed to attend AA. This began a 12 year membership in AA, from the age of 14 to age 26.

My identity as an adolescent developed with the belief that I had the disease of alcoholism and was different from everyone else. I dared not question this because my parents were in recovery and I was encouraged to spend time only with recovering people. All through those years was a nagging doubt that I was not an alcoholic, but I had grown up believing that I was.

It was not until my mid twenties that I began to have the courage to question what had happened to me and probably countless other adolescents during the 80's. In AA asking questions is not tolerated so I began to "sneak" and do some research of my own about diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse and dependence.
At this time I was working in a treatment center. I also received my degree in psychology. Upon researching the diagnostic criteria, I found that I met none of it. I began to do more research and left AA in the fall of '98.

It may be difficult but it’s absolutely essential to keep lines of communication open. If any actions are necessary, Szlavitz says that they should be the least intensive. And she urges that “When you consider taking an action aimed at changing teens’ behavior, always consider not only what will happen if they comply, but what will happen if they don’t and whether those consequences are more likely to hinder or help them in the long run.”

She explains that, for example,

an arrest for drug possession may mean the denial of future federal college financial aid: if you are considering having your child arrested to teach a lesson, you may well want to consider a lesson that is less likely to affect the youngster’s ability to attend college. Having a college education, of course, is linked to a lower risk of addiction and for relapse among those who do get addicted. Your goal of getting your child through college is one of the best ways to reduce the odds of long-term addiction --- even if it doesn’t reduce the immediate risk of drug use or abuse.

Anne M. Fletcher approached the question of how to help those who drink too much in a very logical way. She asked hundreds of people who had successfully dealt with their drinking problems how other people had helped them either moderate or eliminate their drinking.

The results are summarized in the following nine recommendations that are included in her book Sober for Good: New Solutions for Drinking Problems -- Advice from Those who Have Succeeded.

To learn more about each of these recommendations, see her chapter titled “You Can Help.”

One of the five major myths that Anne Fletcher dispels in the book is that there’s nothing that others can do to help a person with a drinking problem until that person is ready.
For more ideas, visit Harm Reduction Works for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.


This web site is informational only. It does not provide medical, parenting, behavioral, psychological or other suggestions or advice on any subject. None is implied and none should be inferred.

This site does not dispense medical, legal, or any other advice and none should be inferred.
For more fine print, read the disclaimer.