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

     Your Teen Drinks

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 outcomes.

II. Expert Advice

Maia Szalavitz is an expert. She’s the well known author of articles and books about teens. 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 results 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 teen 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 dropping. If your teen appears to be drunk once every other month, that’s one thing. That’s far different 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 hard but it’s essential to keep lines of communication open. If any actions are necessary, Szlavitz says that they should be the least strong. And she urges mindfulness when you consider taking an action aimed at changing teens’ behavior.

Consider what will happen if they comply. But also consider what will happen if they don’t comply. Will those results be more likely to hinder or help them in the long run? That’s an essential matter.

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

These are important things to think about 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 results 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. Then I 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. So I 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. It was 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. There they live among troubled strangers. That almost certainly does more harm than good.

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

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 traits. For example, 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 drinking 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: Teen Drinks

Maia Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz is a leading neuroscience and addiction writer. She has published in Time, New York Times, Scientific American MindWashington Post and many others.

Her three books include Help at Any Cost. How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. She has received prestigious awards.

Notes: Teen Drinks
    • This site gives no advice. That includes if your teen drinks alcohol or does drugs.
    • Neither this site nor your host receives any benefit from describing Maia Szalavitz’ work.