4,300 Lives Lost Annually Due Alcohol Abuse Under Legal Drinking Age: How To Protect Your Child
Despite the legal drinking age being set at 21 throughout the U.S., many adolescents imbibe long before then. In fact, by some estimates, as many as one-third of children have consumed alcohol before age 13. But the harm caused by this trend is even more terrifying – according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol use in persons under the age of 21 results in more than 4,300 deaths every year.
The CDC also reports that in 2010, there were roughly 189,000 emergency department visits by people under the legal drinking age 21 for alcohol-related conditions and injuries. Also, more than 90% of the alcohol consumed by underage persons is consumed by binge drinkers.
The consequences of underage drinking underage include the following:
- Death by alcohol poisoning, alcohol withdrawals, car accidents, injury, or drowning
- Unintentional injury by falling or getting burnt
- Suicidal or violent behavior, such as fighting and sexual assault
- Changes in brain development
- Poor academic performance and high absenteeism
- Increased risk of dependence on alcohol later in life
- Becoming the victim of a crime, such as assault or rape
Underage drinking is also closely associated with other harmful behaviors such as smoking, drug abuse, and impulsive/risky sexual encounters.
Underage drinking, same as legal age drinking, is also linked to alcohol-impaired driving – the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that in the past 30 days, 8% of high school students drove after consuming alcohol, and 20% rode with a driver who had consumed alcohol.
It was also revealed that 33% of high school students admit to drinking alcohol in the past 30 days. Eighteen percent admitted to binge drinking, as well. Binge-drinking is defined as consuming more than five drinks on one occasion.
The Monitoring the Future Survey (2015) found that 10% of 8th-grade students and more than one-third of 12th-grade students drank alcohol in the past month, and 5% of 8th-grade students and 17% of 12th-grade students binge drank during the past two weeks.
What Can You Do As a Parent?
Consider Risk Factors
Young people who often drink under the legal drinking age are often affected by certain risk factors that either predispose them to alcohol use or encourage to do so. Some of these include:
- Use of substances by parents or siblings
- Social difficulties (trouble interacting with peers, etc.)
- Poor or lack of self-control
- Aggressive tendencies
- Mental illness such as depression, ADHD, or anxiety
Look for Warning Signs
Young people who drink regularly under the legal drinking age or binge-drink often exhibit signs and symptoms that the parent can identify. These include:
- Physical symptoms of intoxication, such as poor balance, slurred speech, confusion/memory problems and blackouts
- Physical symptoms of hangover/withdrawal, such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, shakiness, tremors, anxiety, racing pulse
- Personality changes that are mostly negative
- Declining academic performance
- Socialization with a new set of friends
- Discipline problems
- Aggressiveness and rebelliousness
Severe withdrawal symptoms such as seizures or non-responsiveness can signal the event is life-threatening, so in these cases, medical attention should be sought immediately.
Teenagers who have a mild or moderate alcohol use disorder can often be treated in an outpatient addiction recovery center or may be effectively served by Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, or other such group support programs.
Severe use, however, may require detox in a medical facility to avoid life-threatening effects and relapse. They may also need intensive inpatient treatment, including individual and group therapy and counseling.
Also, it is common for substance use disorders to be associated with mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety. This is true for both adults and youth. If the youth undergoes therapy, the inclusion of underlying mental health issues should be integral to his or her treatment.
It’s not enough to rely on the help of doctors, therapists, and counselors, and it is not just the affected youth that needs to educate him or herself. Parents and other family members should get involved, and learn as much as they can about alcoholism and existing mental illness if present.
Promote Family Support
Substance abuse and addiction is a disease and can be effectively treated if caught early. Blaming, shaming, and treating the child as a moral failure is not the way to go. The child needs to feel understand, respected, loved, and supported.
If dysfunctional family dynamics exist (i.e. domestic violence, conflict) contributing the child’s alcohol use, these may need to be addressed as well through family therapy. If you are a parent and use drugs or alcohol yourself, you may also need to consider treatment. Understandably, children learn by example, and if you are a substance abuser and are not seeking treatment, you are not going to serve as a satisfactory role model.
Understand That Substance Abuse Tends To Be Chronic
Alcohol interferes with normal brain functioning and chemistry, and this is especially true of those under 21. It can also affect growth and development. It may also serve as a gateway drug, leading to use of marijuana, synthetic drugs, heroin, and more.
Indeed, according to the CDC, youths who start drinking before age 15 have six times the risk of becoming dependent on alcohol later in life than those who wait until they are 21 or older.
Remember that prevention and early intervention are the best weapons against substance abuse and addiction. If not caught early, the risk of future substance abuse increases greatly. Youths who also suffer from a serious problem may need long-term treatment and support well into adulthood.
Any alcohol use by young persons under age 21 is a serious problem. Parents should look for warning signs and consider what risk factors their child may be facing. Enrollment in treatment or participation in a group support environment should be considered immediately. Families should also be aware of how they are interacting, and how parental and sibling behavior may be contributing to the problem.
Finally, alcohol consumption at this age can result in permanent developmental effects, and lead to increased risk of dependency and addiction as an adult.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology