Your Teen Drinks Alcohol or Does Drugs? Now What?

It’s natural to panic if you discover that your teen drinks alcohol or uses drugs. Our first reaction as parents is to do something, anything, to deal with the problem. And to do it now. That’s a great danger because doing the wrong thing can create serious problems.

  1. Reality
  2. Expert Advice
  3. Problem or Not?
  4. Consider Your Actions
  5. Avoid Unneeded Treatment
  6. Alternatives
  7. Problems Drinking Doesn’t Cause
  8. Resources

I. Reality

It’s more accurate to say that it’s natural to panic when rather than if your teen drinks or drugs. That’s because almost all teenagers experiment with alcohol. The majority also experiment with using drugs illicitly. That’s completely natural and normal. The good news is that very few experience any serious or long-term negative consequences.

II. Expert Advice

Maia Szalavitz is an expert. She’s the well known author of articles and books about teens and their problems. Szalavitz suggests that parents first try to put things in perspective. So, you discover that your teen drinks. You’re not alone. Take a deep breath. Don’t take any action until you’re calm. Think about all your options. Carefully consider the potential consequences of each choice.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. But it’s essential not to over-react.

III. Problem or Not?

teen drinksHave your son or daughter’s grades suddenly dropped? Attitudes changed? Had problems with the law? Remember that adolescence is a time of great personal change and emotional turmoil. Are these problems the result of drinking or drugs? Or are drinking or doing drugs an expression of adolescent struggles?

Szalavitz makes an important distinction. It’s one thing if your daughter stays out past curfew and comes home appearing intoxicated once or twice. And if she has high grades and a generally good attitude. But it’s 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, that’s one thing. That’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 teenagers doesn’t signal addiction.

IV. Consider Your Actions Carefully

teenager drinks alcohol
Maia Szalavitz

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 mindfulness when you consider taking an action aimed at changing teens’ behavior. Consider what will happen if they comply. However, also consider what will happen if they don’t comply. Will those consequences be more likely to hinder or help them in the long run? That’s an absolutely essential matter.

She explains that, for example, an arrest may cause a denial of college financial aid. So having the police arrest your teen maight not be a good idea. That’s because college is linked to a lower risk of addiction and for relapse among those who do get addicted.

These are important considerations if your teen drinks alcohol or does drugs.

V. Avoid Unneeded Treatment

Sending a teen to a retreat or rehab program is probably the worst choice a parent could make. These facilities usually use the 12 steps. They teach people that they are alcoholics and drug addicts. That they are powerless over these substances. That they must submit to God or a Higher Power. And that they can never drink any alcohol for the rest of their lives.

Possible Consequences

The following letter from an adult woman shows the tragic consequences of her unnecessary treatment.

I was put in several different treatment centers 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. The “professionals” were operating under the belief that if I denied using I must be an alcoholic.

I was discharged unsuccessfully from one center because I would not admit that I was an alcoholic. ThenI was admitted to an in-patient facility to help break through my denial.

At the last center they told I couldn’t go home until I admitted I was an alcoholic. And I had to agree to go to AA meetings.

She explained that

I was 14, unsure of my identity and place in the world. SoI began to believe that I was wrong, maybe I was an alcoholic. I began to think that maybe “blackout” caused me to forget. So I agreed to attend AA. This began a 12 year membership in AA, from the age of 14 to age 26.

AA doesn’t tolerate asking questions. 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.

VI. Alternatives to AA or Rehab

Young people can usually either moderate or abstain. They don’t benefit from being sent away to an expensive alcohol/drug retreat or rehab to live among troubled strangers. That almost certainly does more harm than good.

Good alternatives for use at home are these, among many others.

HAMS (Harm reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support).

Life Process Program.

LifeRing Recovery.

Moderation Management.

Rational Recovery.    

SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety).

SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training).

In the very unlikely event that a rehab is necessary, there are a number of non-12-step retreats. About 25% of rehabs are non-12 step. Make sure it has full accreditation. It should be able to provide medical detoxification services if needed. And it should accept health insurance in payment. These are all minimum qualifications. What to look for in selecting a treatment program.

VII. Problems Drinking Doesn’t Cause

Later Drinking Problems

If your teen drinks or does drugs, that does not cause later problems. Such problems are largely a result of earlier pre-existing personal characteristics. For example, behavioral psychologists have observed the play of pre-school children. From this, they have been able to predict accurately. That is, which would drink at an earlier age and have later problems in life. So simply consuming alcohol at an early age is not a reason for panic.

Brain Problems

And there is no evidence that if a teen drinks in moderation, it has any negative affects on the brain. There is substantial evidence that it has no negative effects on the human brain. To the contrary, drinking in moderation reduces cognitive decline as we age.

VIII. Resources if a Teen Drinks to Excess

Brain Science Research Findings Misrepresented and Distorted.

Dissenting Ideas on New Brain Science.

Does Beginning to Drink at an Early Age CAUSE Later Alcohol Abuse or Other Problems?

Drinking Alcohol at an Early Age (Early Onset of Drinking) and Later Alcohol Problems: New Research.

‘Drinking Alcohol Damages Teenagers’ Brains

Early Onset of Drinking (Early First Drink of Alcohol) and Later Problems.

Early Puberty Predicts Early Alcohol Drinking and Intoxication

Genetics and Early Age of Drinking.

Maia Szalavitz is a leading neuroscience and addiction writer. She has contributed to Time, the New York Times, Scientific American Mind, the Washington Post  and many other publications.

Her three books include Help at Any Cost. How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. The American Psychological Association and the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology have both bestowed on her prestigious awards.


Disclaimer: This website is informational only. It also makes no suggestions about any matter. That includes if your teen drinks. In addition, neither this website nor your host receives any benefit from describing Maia Szalavitz’ work.

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