Clinical Therapist * Mental Health Specialist * Media Expert

Understanding Teenage Drinking

THIS WEEK’S PARENT TRAP…

My son is 14 and has started to drink, heavily. My husband seems to think it’s ‘no big deal’. I’m way more black and white about it. I’m an ER nurse and have seen kid after kid admitted with alcohol poisoning, some many times over. I know the effects on the growing brain and the bottom line is it’s a major health risk. I’m sick of the cultural acceptance of both alcohol and pot and think parents aren’t doing enough to deal with the problem. Can you address this issue?

Janet, Vancouver

YOUR TWO CENTS…

It is hard to control it all with your teens. But at some point casual use can become more hardcore.  There is no easy way, but if after talking with your son things don’t improve, it might be time to get help. Not intervention, but real help.

Jeff, Vancouver

I don’t think alcohol needs to be demonized with our youth, I feel like that’s something that would make them want to drink more. While obviously overconsumption is a problem, try not to make a big deal out of it when you talk to him about it, explain the risks while also making sure he feels like you trust him to make the right choices.

Sandi, North Vancouver

MICHELE KAMBOLIS SAYS…

How vulnerable are teens to risky, even life-threatening substance use behaviours? The numbers are staggering. But most teens aren’t drinking because they enjoy a glass of wine or pint of beer — they are drinking solely to get drunk, and the faster the better. With Canadians drinking over 50 percent above the global average (yes, 50 percent!) it’s no wonder that our kids are hitting the bottle at the ages of 13 or younger. So what’s a parent to do? Understanding the needs of the teenage brain may be the starting point.

Most teens have full knowledge of the risks of drinking. They know about alcohol poisoning, higher risk of sexual assault, and motor vehicle accidents. They’re even aware of the impact on their developing brain and the long-term health risks. Despite full knowledge of the potential negative impact, something very real and very powerful takes over; the thrill, the excitement, the surge of feel-good neurochemicals, overrides logical thinking.

It’s all a natural consequence of the changes that are happening in a teen’s brain system; a surge in neural activity using the brain chemical dopamine is driving their reward centers. What’s the outcome of all this dopamine-driving activity? A teen’s low baseline of dopamine takes them from feeling easily bored to enjoying an enormous outpouring of energy and emotion when they drink alcohol and engage in risk-taking activities.

But not all teens make the choice to drink. Start by helping your son hold the space between impulse and action.  Take time to plan together, help him delay decisions that might be risky and discover that in doing so new abilities can emerge. Help your son use his impulsivity to spark creativity, new experiences. Use the drive for a thrill to develop new capacities.

This is a time to guide him towards expanding the essence of his adolescent years, rather than simply ‘getting him through.’

One vital element here is to instil a sense of exploration and wonder that does not rely on external influences, such as alcohol. Rather, it is through a good appreciation of self-worth. And that is found in an awakened, deeply connected and communicative family.

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