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Teens and alcohol - keeping our teenagers safe during their experimental years

Drinking is part of our culture; we drink to celebrate, to relieve stress, to socialise, to have fun.  The ease of availability and clever marketing around alcohol makes it very easy for us to forget that it’s a recreational drug – our most used one at that!  It leaves very little question as to why our teenagers are drawn to experiment with a substance that brings perceived excitement, thrill and confidence.  

But there’s more to it than getting drunk with friends.  Drinking during the teenage years can have some major impacts on the developing brain and the amount our teens are drinking is cause for alarm.  

So, how exactly is alcohol effecting our teens and how can we keep them safe during their experimental years?

Firstly, let’s consider why teenagers drink.

There are many reasons that can influence a teenager’s decision to drink.  The teenage years are known as the time for risk taking and experimentation.  This is due to both biological development and external influences experienced during the teenage years.

The onset of puberty sees the brain switch back into a more emotional-dominant state, making impulse decisions and sensation-seeking more likely (like that of a toddler’s brain!).  Combine this with external factors such as social status among peers, peer pressure, social influence, age-related marketing and low self-esteem and you can certainly see how a teen could be influenced to experiment with alcohol.

In addition to their brain development and external pressures, like children of any age, teenagers are also influenced largely by the actions of those around them, particularly older family members.  Using alcohol regularly in unhealthy or dangerous amounts or to deal with stress can have a negative impact on a teenager’s perception of what is normal and therefore subconsciously effect their decision making around alcohol.  In comparison, a family who enjoys a glass of wine with dinner every now and then or drinks sensibly with friends will provide a much more healthier perception of how alcohol can be used to have a fun time.

When it becomes a big problem – our binge drinking culture.

Binge drinking is a major concern in both Australia and New Zealand.  

Defined as drinking more than four standard drinks for an adult female or five standard drinks for an adult male in one session, when we drink excessively like this, the liver (which helps to remove alcohol from the blood system) is unable to keep up which leaves the alcohol to circulate around the blood system and brain while waiting to be removed by the liver, resulting in intoxication.  

Reports show that teens are more likely to binge drink due to their beverage choices (often sweet, easy to drink or with a higher alcohol content), drinking too quickly, pressures from their social group or bravado (encouraging each other to drink more).  When teenagers drink in excess, the risk of becoming seriously intoxicated or injured, getting caught up in dangerous behaviour or poor decision-making increases.

More than just getting drunk – how drinking alcohol can impact brain development.

Alcohol is a depressant substance which acts on the human brain by interfering with neurotransmitters (chemical messages) to slow the brain down.  This is why when someone is drunk they can appear lethargic, disorientated or have slurred speech.  

When the brain is under development throughout the teenage years, there are parts of the brain which fall vulnerable to this impact of alcohol and can result in (sometimes irreversible) brain changes that lead to poor decision making, personality changes, memory and learning.  In particular, the Hippocampus (responsible for memory and learning) and the Prefrontal Cortex (responsible for logic; planning, language, decision making, impulse control and judgement).  

What can you do to keep your teen safe around alcohol during their experimental years?

Have the conversation – talk to your teen about the risks of drinking.  When it comes to teenagers, the research tells us that it’s best to connect emotionally before talking logically, so hear them out, provide them with cues that indicate you’re listening and that you understand.  When teenagers feel connected to, they are more likely to listen to your more logical ‘words of wisdom’.

Show them how it’s done – be a good role model.  Stay mindful of how you drink around your child (of any age!).  Consider how often you drink, how much you drink in one sitting and whether you use alcohol to relieve stress or to deal with emotions.

Encourage zero alcohol for as long as possible – we understand the risks and can now see what impact drinking alcohol has on the developing brain, so it’s for good reason that we have drinking ages in place to support this research and keep our teenagers safe.  

When the time comes and your teen shows interest in alcohol:

Rethink boundaries and expectations – talk to your teen about what is okay and what is not.  In many cases, taking an overwhelmingly authoritative approach to situations like this can cause the teen to revert or rebel.  Although controversial, it can be a good idea to use your initiative and consider whether you think your teen will rebel and plan to come to an agreement around alcohol amounts, types and curfews, etc.  Nathan Mikaere-Wallis* talks more about this in the Newstalk ZB podcast, here.

Encourage good drinking habits – this could include making sure they eat before they start drinking and are properly hydrated to slow the effect of alcohol. If they are tired or have been active during the day, explain how they may feel the effects of alcohol more quickly than normal and encourage them to try to take it slowly. 

There are no specific drinking guidelines for teenagers, however their liver is similar to an adult’s in that on average, it will still take them one hour to process one standard drink containing 10 grams of alcohol. Try to encourage them to limit their drinking to three to four drinks a night and space their drinks out so they are keeping to one alcoholic drink an hour or alternating with a non-alcoholic drink. Be aware if they are female, have a small body size or incredibly fit alcohol will have a stronger effect on them.

Also try to encourage them to not take drinks from other people as this way they have more control of the amount of alcohol they are consuming. They will also reduce the impact of having their drink spiked. 

Control the environment – if your teen is starting to experiment with alcohol in social settings, offer to have the party or get-together in your home or in an environment where you can be present.  This gives you a level of control over the type of alcohol and how much of it is consumed, ensuring the party goers have eaten or continue to eat while they drink.  Just make sure to be transparent with other parents within the social group.  If the party is elsewhere, make yourself available for contact and pick ups to ensure your teen gets home safe.

Related resources:

Published with permission from Synergy Health
Author: Danica Richards