Teenage Alcoholism: Symptoms, Treatment & Sobriety

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935 in Akron, Ohio by Bill Wilson.  In the 1930’s alcoholism was considered to be a failure of moral character and alcoholics were treated with total disdain and disrespect. Doctors gave alcoholics hallucinogens in an attempt to help them come to the realization that they needed to quit drinking.  Thankfully Americans like Bill Wilson and his doctor Bob Smith saw that alcoholics are not bad people, they are sick people in need of help. Wilson created Alcoholics Anonymous which has since become a fellowship of over 2 million men and women worldwide who suffer from the effects of alcohol dependence.

Beer, wine, cocktails and distilled liquor/hard liquor are legally sold in the United States to adults over 21 years of age.  Millions of people enjoy alcohol responsibly every day. However, millions more are suffering from some degree of alcohol addiction or dependence. Alcoholism is defined as drinking to excess and it includes both alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence.

An adolescent that abuses alcohol often struggles the following self-destructive and dangerous behaviors:

  • Repeatedly neglecting responsibilities at home, school, work and in life due to alcohol.
  • Using alcohol as a way to de-stress, relax or self-soothe
  • Drinking despite the strain it causes on relationships
  • Drinking in a dangerous situation

Alcohol Tolerance & Abuse in Teens

Teens who drink large amounts of alcohol regularly condition their liver such that it begins to break down alcohol more rapidly than it does in people who rarely drink.  The liver does this by producing larger amounts of the enzymes which break down alcohol. Because the liver is able to adapt this way people who drink regularly find they need to drink more alcohol more often to feel the same effects. Neurotransmitter systems in the brain that are regularly exposed to large amounts of alcohol begin to adapt to its presence.  Alcohol suppresses the functioning of the neurotransmitter systems. It affects the GABA system causing sleepiness and a reduction in anxiety and alertness. With long-term exposure to alcohol, the GABA system adapts so that the alcohol no longer triggers these effects. The teen needs to consume more alcohol to experience the same effect.

Alcohol Withdrawal & Symptoms

When long-term usage of alcohol stops, the result is alcohol withdrawal.  Alcohol withdrawal is an unpleasant set of involuntary physical responses that result from quitting drinking.  These symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Shakiness
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sweating
  • Irritability
  • Headaches

In severe cases, withdrawal from alcohol can cause seizures, agitation, confusion, hallucinations, fever and even death.  These symptoms can be dangerous and medical consultation is strongly recommended if heavy drinking is abruptly discontinued.

Alcohol’s Effects on the Growing Teen’s Body

Although alcohol affects every organ of the body, its most dramatic impact is on the liver.  Alcohol is rapidly absorbed in the upper portion of the small intestine. The alcohol-laden blood then travels to the liver via the veins and capillaries of the digestive tract, which affects nearly every liver cell.  The liver cells are the only cells in the body that can produce enough of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase to oxidize alcohol at an appreciable rate. Alcohol metabolism permanently changes liver cell structure, which impairs the liver’s ability to metabolize fats.  For this reason, heavy drinkers tend to develop fatty livers.

The following is a list of potential complications from drinking too much alcohol:

  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Wernicke’s-Korsakoff’s syndrome
  • Kidney failure
  • Enlarged spleen
  • Bleeding from veins in the esophagus or stomach
  • High blood pressure in the liver
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Build up of fluid in the abdomen
  • Hypertension
  • Brain disorders and coma
  • Liver cancer

Adolescents are more likely to exhibit cognitive deficits including learning and memory dysfunction.  Drinking during adolescence is particularly harmful due to the fact that teen bodies are in the midst of critical stages of neurodevelopment including neuronal connectivity in different brain regions.   The fact that the teenage brain is not fully developed makes an adolescent especially susceptible to the harmful effects of alcohol.

Alcohol’s Effects on Personal Relationships

Alcohol abuse can have a significant effect on family members, friends, and extended family.  For this reason, AL-ANON was created as a spinoff of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is a support group for friends and family members of problem drinkers.  AL-ANON’s basic principles include education regarding “enabling” and “co-dependency” and how to support yourself despite the actions of the alcoholic teenager.

As a parent, it can be difficult to learn that your child is drinking.  It may be that you have come to a gradual realization that your child is abusing alcohol.  Suspicious events such as missing bottles of liquor or diminishing amounts of liquor in the home may lead you to believe something is wrong.  Additional behaviors such as irritability, mood changes, missing money, secretive behaviors, forgetfulness regarding the behaviors the teen has engaged in while drinking, a change in friends, a change in activities and possible legal issues such as a DUI.  These things are all red flag signals that there is a problem.