Teens and Alcohol: A risky way to have fun

Most parents and even most teens are aware of the risks that come with drinking alcohol, yet many of us drink. Teens and alcohol use have long been problematic. The teen brain is known for being impulsive and seeking thrills, which increases the incidence for many types of risky behaviors. When teens drink alcohol, they risk many serious consequences.

Binge drinking

Teens who drink alcohol are more likely to binge drink than adults. Binge drinking is particularly dangerous because a lot of alcohol in a short amount of time doesn’t allow the liver to clear the alcohol as it’s consumed. This leads to higher blood alcohol content and more associated problems.

Binging can quickly lead to intoxication, which can lead to many of the problems to be discussed below.

A cycle often develops when teens start drinking. The more they drink, the more likely they are to drink again. This can lead to risks with each exposure, and to long-term problems with alcoholism. People who begin drinking before age 15 are 4 times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21.

Consequences of teen alcohol use

It’s illegal in the US

Drugs and alcohol should be treated with respect and used only with good judgment. This judgment should take into consideration laws and safety.

Possession of alcohol by a minor is illegal, so teens in the area where others are drinking risk getting into legal trouble simply by being there. Each state’s laws are different, but all states have a minimum drinking age of 21 years.

You do not have to be driving to be convicted of violating a minor in possession (MIP) law. If you are holding an unopened beer and are under the state’s drinking age, you can still be convicted of a MIP offense.

Teens don’t have to be legally drunk under most state’s driving under the influence (DUI) laws to be found guilty of MIP.

While it’s true that the laws are not always enforced to the fullest extent, there are many states where possession can lead to mandatory suspension of a driver’s license. Jail time and fines are possible, especially for repeat offenders.

These charges also can impact sport team participation and college scholarships. They remain in government records forever, which can affect the job prospects of otherwise stellar candidates and cause major damage to their long-term career aspirations.

Adults who make the alcohol available to teens can also be held accountable.

Teens who drink are more likely to become abusive, commit a crime, or get into a fight. Each of these situations can increase legal troubles.

Brain development

Our brain does not fully develop until the early to mid 20s and early use of drugs or alcohol is impacted in two ways due to this. Teens fail to realize the full implication of their actions and alcohol can prevent proper brain development.

Teens often cannot understand the consequences of their actions due to brain immaturity, yet they are held accountable for their actions. They tend to be impulsive and crave thrills. Teens want to please peers and fit in. All of these typical teen traits can put them at risk to try known risks, including drugs and alcohol.

Not only does the underdeveloped brain put kids at risk to drink, but drinking impairs the way the brain grows.

Short-term or moderate drinking can impair learning and memory far more in teens than in adults in the mid 20s and beyond. Adolescents need to only drink half as much as adults to suffer the same negative effects.

Studies have shown physical changes in the brain in kids who drink, especially in the hippocampus and frontal lobe. Our hippocampus helps us learn and remember things and the prefrontal lobe is important for judgement, planning, impulse control and decision making.

Damage to the brain from alcohol during the teen and young adult years can be long-term and irreversible.

Injuries

When our brains are under the influence of alcohol, our bodies become uncoordinated. We lose judgement capabilities.

When drunk, one is more likely to fall, get into an accident, or get into a fight.

Many teens are hospitalized each year due to intoxication itself or the injuries resulting from being drunk.

Death

We all know the mantra to never drink and drive, but driving isn’t the only serious risk with drinking. Simply drinking too much alcohol can lead to coma and death.

If you choose to drink, you should ideally have food and water to help slow absorption. Unfortunately many teens drink excessive amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time without water or food. This might be due to the fact that they want to quickly drink before going to a school function, where no alcohol is permitted. Or maybe they are challenged to chug beer or down several shots. I’ve seen teens not eat during the day to “save calories” because they want to drink in the evening and not gain weight. These patterns are especially dangerous.

Drinking and driving is never safe, even if you feel you are still sober. Unfortunately alcohol impairs our ability to judge if we are sober or not. Underage drivers are more likely than adults to suffer impairment behind the wheel.

From the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

  • Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, and about a quarter of those crashes involve an underage drinking driver. In 2016, young drivers, 16-24 years old, made up 39 percent of drivers involved in fatal alcohol-impaired crashes.
  • To reduce alcohol-related fatal crashes among youth, all States have adopted a minimum legal drinking age of 21. NHTSA estimates that minimum-drinking-age laws have saved 31,417 lives between 1975 and 2016.

Despite the large numbers of people killed in alcohol related traffic accidents, the majority of underage drinking related deaths are not traffic related. Deaths occur from homicides, suicides, burns, falls, and drownings. Some kids drink to the point of alcohol poisoning and stop breathing.

Risky sex

Being under the influence of a substance can also put you at risk for being raped or having unprotected sex.

I don’t believe that anyone scan consent to sex if they’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol, yet we know that being intoxicated is associated with sexual activity.

My favorite example to help understand consent is the Cup of Tea video, which is nicely discussed in the linked blog from EducateEmpowerKids.org.

When under the influence, the chances of using proper protection from infections and pregnancy falls. Drinking is associated with sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy.

Do not drink from a container that has been left unsupervised – someone could slip something in it.

I encourage kids to stay with a group when they’re out. No one should be allowed to leave the group unless it is pre-arranged. You should not allow a friend to make this decision if they are under the influence.

Not cool

Drinking isn’t going to make you cool. In fact, it can lead to you saying and doing embarrassing things. You lose coordination, so can look very foolish. You might even get so drunk that you vomit on or pee on yourself.

No one wants to deal with a hangover the next day, but heavy drinking can easily lead to one. That’s definitely not cool.

And your “friends” have cameras with them at all times these days. One simple mistake or moment of poor judgement can be forever recorded… and potentially seen by parents, school administrators, your coach, or your boss. Even your future children could see your moment of disgrace if it’s uploaded or shared.

Depression

Depression is a risk factor to start drinking. People attempt to make themselves feel better with alcohol. Of course the alcohol leads to other problems, which tend to worsen the depression.

If you feel like you’re depressed, help is available! Talk to your parents, your school counselor, or your doctor.

If you feel like you want to hurt yourself, call the Suicide Hotline. Put a number in your phone now or search it in time of need.

  • Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • 1-800 –SUICIDE (784-2433)

Obesity

It’s no secret that alcoholic drinks can pack in a lot of calories. When people consume alcohol regularly, they are much more likely to become overweight or obese.

Increased weight is associated with many health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, metabolic problems and liver disease.

Find a way to say no.

Just say no. (Only really confident people can be secure enough to not give a reason.)

Tell your friends that if your coach finds out, he’ll kick you off the team.

Say that your parents smell your breath when you get home. If you’re caught, your parents will probably tell other parents. (That will scare them into even asking you again!)

Offer to be a safe ride home if you have a car and are allowed to drive friends.

Say you don’t want the calories.

State that you want to be on top of your game for whatever you’re doing. For instance, if you’re playing cards you might not be able to strategize as well or keep a poker face if you’re under the influence. If you’re swimming you want to be safe. Since many people get tired when drinking alcohol, you can simply say that you don’t want to fall asleep at the party.

If you’ve already been in trouble for drinking, admit to that, and let them know that you don’t want to suffer consequences again.

Plan on doing things that keep people busy and are fun rather than just going somewhere to “hang out.” Go to a sporting event or a movie. Bring frisbees to a park. Go for a bike ride. Play a competitive card or board game.

Remember you can have fun without drinking!

For more information about teens and alcohol:

Impact of alcohol on the developing brain

Teen Drinking May Cause Irreversible Brain Damage

Teen Dating Violence: Recognition

Would you recognize signs of dating violence? Many teens don’t report it to friends or family. It can be difficult to recognize despite the significant prevalence. Victims might not say anything out of fear for their safety, embarrassment, low self-esteem, or not recognizing the abusive behaviors. Whatever the reason for the under-reporting, parents and other adults who interact with teens must recognize signs of dating violence to help protect our kids.

Relationships

Teen Dating Violence: RecognitionWe want our kids to develop healthy relationships where they can have fun, grow in their own identity, and be true to their own values. Healthy relationships are founded on honesty, trust, and communication. There is mutual respect.

Dating abuse can happen in any unhealthy relationship. It happens to smart people, rich people, girls, guys, LGBT, and can happen in any community. We see news stories of abusive relationships but it doesn’t always seem real. A new bride murdered.  A teen raped.  A sports figure accused.

Failed recognition

Unfortunately we don’t even know about most abusive relationships. People suffer silently.  How is a parent to know?

Can a teen see risk factors before becoming involved with a risky personality?

Abuser characteristics

Parents might look for the “type” of teen that they want their child to steer away from, but unfortunately, the abusers are not easily identified.

Abusers do not look like drug dealing, tattoo covered, pierced people in tattered clothing.

They are difficult to recognize on first glance because they tend to be popular, smart, good looking, and personable.

They are often good at reading people and responding to other’s desires, making them seem “perfect” initially.

Abusers manipulate others. Have you heard of gaslighting? It’s a common means to make the victim feel responsible.

They gain trust.

They weave deception.

Traits to watch for in an abuser:

  • Blames others for all problems
  • Jealous
  • Impulsive
  • Wants to move quickly into a relationship
  • Criticizes others
  • Does not respect personal boundaries
  • Denies responsibility for actions
  • Takes risks
  • Insulting (you’re fat, you’re stupid, no one else would love you like I do)
  • History of hitting or hurting others
  • Tries to monopolize your time and life – wants to control what you do, who you’re with, even what you’ll wear
  • Seems perfect initially (no one’s perfect!)
  • Mood swings or can’t manage anger or frustration well

What an abusive relationship might look like

Starting out – all seems great!

The relationship typically starts out well. A lot of laughs, good times.

If it didn’t, people would leave.

Power and Control cycle

Abusers have a power and control cycle that builds over time. They gain a little trust, then test with a little control.

Bit by bit they become more controlling and abusive. It builds so slowly many people miss the early warning signs and then are so swept by the cycle that it’s hard to leave.

Abusers want to know your every move, which at first might even seem flattering, but it is a control tactic. They might choose what you wear or where you go. Abusers monitor your phone calls to see who you talk to. They isolate you from your friends and even family so you lose your support group. They put you down so you feel no one else would like you or want you.  Abusers make you feel less of a person and they are “good” to put up with you.

They get jealous (again, flattering on the outset because they “care”). Abusers often apologize for hurting you, but then claim it is your fault that they behave that way.

In truth, they blame others for most of their behaviors and only take credit when things make them look good.

Cool tool

Breakthecycle.org has a really cool interactive wheel to see the relationship between words and actions. Move your cursor around the wheel to get more information on each topic in the orange part of the wheel.

Signs of an unhealthy relationship:

  • One or both people try to change the other
  • Control: one person makes most or all of the decisions
  • Isolation: one or both people drop friends and interests outside of the relationship
  • Fighting: one or both people yell, threaten, hit, or throw things during arguments
  • Verbal abuse: one or both people make fun of the other’s opinions or interests
  • Jealousy and control: one or both people keep track of the other all the time by calling, texting, or checking in with friends
  • Relationship moves quickly to “serious”
  • Mood swings, anxiety, depression, personality changes
  • Physical signs: bruises, cuts, scrapes, showering immediately when coming home
  • Abused feels guilty and “at fault” and makes excuses for their partner
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Multiple sexual partners

Follow your instincts

If you suspect something is not right, act on your hunch and take action to address issues and leave the relationship early if problem behaviors persist.

 

If your teen is in a relationship with someone who is violent, your teen may:

  • Avoid friends, family, and school activities
  • Make excuses for a partner’s behavior
  • Look uncomfortable or fearful around a partner
  • Lose interest in favorite activities
  • Get lower grades in school
  • Have unexplained injuries, like bruises or scratches

If you think your teen might be an abusive person:

Teens who use physical, emotional, or sexual violence to control their partners need help to stop. Don’t make excuses if you think your child has a problem.

If your teen is abusive, he or she may have these characteristics:

  • Jealous and possessive
  • Blames other people for anything that goes wrong
  • Damages or ruins other people’s things
  • Wants to control a partner’s decisions
  • Constantly texts or calls a partner
  • Posts embarrassing information or pictures about a partner online

Next up:

How to prevent and seek help for teen abusive relationships.



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Sleep Deprived Teens: Health, Safety, & Mental Well Being Are At Significant Risk

Teens do not get enough sleep. Most teens need 8.5-10 hours of sleep each night. Not 6 hours. Not even 8 hours. Most don’t get even close to meeting their needs and that’s a bigger deal than many realize. Sleep is very undervalued, but we need to prioritize it. Sleep deprived teens suffer from many physical and emotional problems.

Why don’t teens get enough sleep?

One of the most common reasons is that their biological clock (AKA circadian rhythm) makes it hard to fall asleep before 11 pm and school starts too early to allow them to sleep until 8 am, which would allow for 9 hours.

In addition to their circadian rhythm, some of their habits and activities can interfere with a healthy bedtime.

Screens are a big problem.

The light interferes with our natural melatonin rising. I regularly ask teens (and parents) to limit screen use for at least an hour before bedtime, but most teens say that’s impossible because they have to finish their homework at that time and they need their computer or tablet to do homework. If you can’t turn off the screen, at least use a program that limits the blue light that prevents the rise of melatonin. I personally use f.lux. (It’s free and works on PC, Mac, ipad, android, and Linux). I find that it really helps. (This is not a paid endorsement, just a personal statement.)

Phones.

On a similar note, phones distract kids from what they’re doing, delaying falling asleep. It takes longer to finish homework when there are distractions from the phone. Kids often are tempted to check in one more time on all their social channels, which delays sleep time. And then friends who are still up will text to see who’s up (or who they can wake up).

Activities are too late. 

I’m not talking about kids just out and about on a school night. I’m talking about regularly scheduled activities that otherwise help build a well rounded person. It’s not uncommon for activities to be scheduled to run until 9:30 or 10 on school nights for middle and high school aged kids. They get home and are hungry, need a shower, and are ramped up so not ready for sleep.

Activities start too early.

I know many kids who must be at school before school actually starts. Whether it’s band practice, church study groups, sports, or taking a missed test before school, they all interfere with sleeping in, which is what teens need.

School starts too early.

Most school districts around the country start school well before the recommended 8:30 earliest start time. School districts that have initiated later start times have shown improved test scores, fewer absences and tardies, less depression, improved athletic performance, and better graduation rates. Unfortunately, those schools are still in the minority.

Medical causes of sleep deprivation and fatigue can also occur. 

If you suspect any of these, you should schedule a visit with your doctor.

  1. Anxiety
  2. Restless leg syndrome
  3. Sleep apnea – pausing of breath, often associated with snoring
  4. Medications that affect sleep cycles
  5. Heartburn or acid reflux
  6. Hormone imbalances, such as thyroid problems
  7. Anemia, or low red blood cell counts
  8. Depression
  9. Nutrition: not eating enough, or eating foods that are not nutritious. If you eat foods that cause spikes in your blood sugar, as those sugars drop you feel fatigued.
  10. Infections
  11. Celiac disease
  12. Chronic pain conditions
  13. Chronic sleep deprivation – I know this is counter-intuitive, but being tired can make it harder to sleep.

 What happens with too little sleep?

sleep is needed
Teens who are sleep deprived suffer in many ways. Make sleep a priority!

Sleep deprivation can lead to many problems that are often not attributed to poor sleep, such as irritability, poor academic performance, accidents, obesity and more.

Moodiness.

We all associate the teen years with angst, so we can easily attribute a teen’s moodiness to just being a teen. But being chronically tired can lead to emotional dysregulation. This will look like irritability, frustration and anger.

School problems. 

It has been well established that getting proper amounts of sleep can help with focus and learning. When our teens fail to get enough sleep, they often report problems with attention, memory, decision making, reaction time, and creativity. It’s no surprise that teens report problems paying attention to a lecture or trouble completing homework in a reasonable time with full accuracy. Grades can easily fall, which leads to anxiety and depression, which in turn leads to more moodiness and trouble sleeping.

Sleep deprivation mimics ADHD. Whenever I see a teen who wants to be evaluated for ADHD because of new loss of focus, falling grades, problems with behavior, or similar issues, I always look at sleep. Most often they don’t have ADHD if this is a new problem. They need more sleep, not a stimulant medication. You can’t put a band aide on a broken bone. Fix the problem, not the symptoms! (The same goes for a teen with ADHD who thinks the medicine that’s worked for years suddenly isn’t sufficient. Unless the medicine recently changed, they need sleep.)

Injuries.

Teens with chronic sleep deprivation are more likely to be accidentally injured.

Drowsy driving is comparable to drunk driving. Teens are at the highest risk for falling asleep at the wheel. Drowsy driving is the most likely to occur in the middle of the night (2-4 am), but also in mid-afternoon (3- 4pm) as teens drive home from school.

Athletes are more likely to be injured while playing their sport, so it is in the best interest of the team to let players sleep.

Risky behaviors. 

Teens with chronic sleep deprivation have been shown to participate in more risk taking behaviors, such as driving without a seatbelt, drinking alcohol, skipping the bike helmet and tobacco use.

Pros and Cons of later school start times for our economy

There are many temporary issues with changing school start times. Parents might have to find solutions to child care of younger kids if they rely on teens babysitting after school. New bus schedules need to be started. Sports programs will need to change practice times. After school job availabilities will change.
Despite these common arguments, economic analysis from the Brookings Institution shows that a one hour delay of school start times could lead to a $17,500 earnings gain for students, compared to a cost of $1,950 during the student’s school days.
Another study that presumed all students start school at 8:30, with a year-by-year economic effect. The study did not take into account other potential benefits of later school start times, such as decreased depression and obesity rates. They found an average annual gain of about $9.3 billion due to fewer automotive accidents, improved graduation rates, and other factors.

What can teens do to get more zzzz’s?

Go to bed when tired at night.

Fighting sleep initially will make it harder to go to sleep when you finally go to bed.

Attempt to follow a regular sleep schedule.

Going to bed and getting up at about the same time every day helps. While sleeping in on weekends can help repair a sleep deficit, it can make it harder to get to sleep Sunday night and getting sufficient sleep every night is better than just getting more sleep a few days/week. Try to sleep in no more than 2 hours past your school day wake up time.

Follow the same routine each night at bedtime.

Brush teeth, read a book or color, take a bath or shower — do whatever helps you wind down and relax. Repeating this every night can help your brain get ready for bed.

Nap to help make up missed sleep.

A short 15-20 minute nap after school can help revitalize the brain to get homework done. Just don’t sleep too long or it can interfere with bedtime.

Turn off the screens an hour before bedtime.

This includes tv, computer games, computer/tablet use for homework, and smartphones for socializing. Use night mode screen lighting and apps that dim the screen (like the f.lux app I mentioned above).

Avoid caffeine in the later afternoon.

The time it takes half of the caffeine to be removed from your body is 5-6 hours. Ideally teens would sleep and never drink caffeine, but I know that isn’t reality. Any caffeine in the later afternoon can make it harder to fall to sleep. Don’t forget “hidden” sources of caffeine, such as chocolate, energy bars, and workout supplements.

One interesting concept that has scientific backing (but goes against the “no caffeine after 3 pm” rule) is the coffee nap. Basically, you drink coffee then quickly nap for 15-20 minutes. Sodas and teas don’t work as well as coffee due to too much sugar and too little caffeine. The coffee nap has been shown to be more effective than either a nap or caffeine alone. Don’t do this often — use it at times you really need it. Don’t do this too late in the day or the caffeine will inhibit your regular night’s sleep.

Skip the snooze button.

Set your alarm for the last possible moment you can, which allows your body to get those extra minutes of sleep. If you need to get out of bed by 6:45, but set your alarm for 6:15 and hit snooze several times, you aren’t sleeping those 30 minutes. Set your alarm for 6:45!

Skip the late night studying.

Studying too late is ineffective. When the brain’s tired it won’t learn as well and you will make mistakes more readily. It takes a lot longer to get anything done when you’re tired. Go to bed and get up a little earlier to get the work finished if needed. Of course you should also look at your time management if this happens too often. Are you involved in too many activities? Do you work or volunteer too many hours? Did you waste too much time on tv, games, or socializing? Do you put off big projects until the last minute? Homework needs to take priority when you’re more alert in the afternoon and evening. If you have problems with this, talk to parents and teachers about what you can do.

If you lay awake for hours or wake frequently, try these techniques to help fall asleep: 

If these fail, talk to your parents and doctor to help find a solution.

Charge your phone in another room. 

Friends who decide to text in the middle of the night keep you from sleeping. Even phones on silent have blinking lights that can spark your curiosity. It’s too tempting to look at your social media apps one more time.

Don’t use the excuse that you need your phone as an alarm. Alarm clocks are cheap. Get one and put your phone elsewhere!

Use your bed for sleep only.

Stop doing homework in bed. Stop watching YouTube and Netflix in bed. Train your brain that your bed is where you sleep.

Exercise.

Exercise helps our bodies sleep better, but it should ideally be earlier in the day. Too close to bedtime (which is common with athletes and dancers) wires us up.

Get natural sunlight in the morning. 

This helps to set your circadian rhythm.

Keep the bedroom cool and dark.

It is harder to sleep if the room is too warm or too bright. A fan can be used to circulate air.

Use blackout shades if needed.

Keep pets out of the bedroom. 

Your animals might love you and you love them, but if they keep you up, it’s just not worth having them around at night.

Nicotine and alcohol affect sleep.

These should not be used by teens in an ideal world, but I know teens will not always follow the rules. Teens should know that if they are using nicotine or alcohol, their quality of sleep will be affected.

Nicotine is a stimulant (like caffeine), which leads to more time sleeping lightly and less time in deep sleep. And yes, vaping and chewing lead to this problem too, since it’s the nicotine that causes the problem.

Alcohol reduces the time it takes to fall asleep but it increases sleep disturbances in the second half of the night, often leading to early wakening. Alcohol relaxes muscles, which can lead to sleep apnea (often noted as snoring). Sleep apnea does not allow the body to have restful sleep. Alcohol is also a diuretic, which might increase the need to wake to go to the bathroom during the night.

We all need to prioritize sleep: for our kids and for ourselves. Our bodies and minds will thank us.

Resources:

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