Underage drinking isn’t just youthful rebellion or a harmless caper. In fact, it’s a bigger problem — with more serious repercussions — than you might think. According to one government study almost 1 in 4 youths age 12 to 15 reported having had at least one drink in their lifetime. What’s more troubling: More than 90% of drinks consumed by young adults age 12 to 20 are part of a binge. Drinking as a young adult — and especially binge drinking — can lead to injury, legal trouble, financial issues, sexual assault, and worse. It also interrupts normal brain development and can increase the risk of developing alcohol use disorder later in life. If someone you love is drinking underage, how can you recognize the signs — and how can you tell if it’s a problem? These are the symptoms of alcoholism and problem drinking in young adults.
Young Adult Alcoholism & Denial
Ask any random person on the street what they think an alcoholic looks like, and you’re bound to get a myriad of answers — probably none of them including the phrase “young adult” or “teen.” Cultural stereotypes about problem drinking can cause parents and other loved ones to miss what is right in front of them. The reality is that not all people with alcohol use disorder fall in line with these preconceived notions. In fact, many people who meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder are functional, well-kept, and could pass you on the street without a further glance. They might even be sitting at your dinner table!
Alcohol use disorder is a brain disease that can be mild, moderate, or severe. It is progressive, meaning that it only gets worse if left untreated. So, if your loved one is only showing mild signs of alcoholism as a young adult, there still is reason to worry. They could be the early signs of a problem that could grow out of control later on. Recognizing the signs of alcoholism in a loved one — no matter their age — is the first step towards getting them help.
Signs of Alcoholism
Alcoholism in young adults can manifest itself in a number of ways. Don’t just rely explicitly on physical appearance; but rather, pay attention to their behavior and their surroundings. Young adults are going through a lot of physical and behavioral changes, which can provide the perfect smoke screen to hide their drinking.
One of the easiest things to notice is empty beer cans or liquor bottles in their bedroom or belongings. The quantity of alcoholic drinks is a secret that they want to desperately keep. As such, many alcoholics will stash their booze or hide their empties. If your family keeps alcohol in the house, doing regular checks is another way to see if your child is struggling. Young adult alcoholics often struggle with getting alcohol on a regular basis and will take it from sources that are readily available, i.e. their parent’s bar. Check for missing beer cans, wine bottles or liquor that tastes watered down.
Also, pay attention to their behavior. It is not a normal rite of passage for your child to be experiencing black outs, consecutive nights of drinking, or slurred speech. It’s not just something that everyone else is doing, and it could be a sign of deeper issues.
When it comes to their physical appearance, you also may notice a dip in their hygiene or other changes in how they look. Have they suddenly gained a lot of weight or started to wear the same clothes day after day?
Their behavior may move outside of the realm of normal young adult transitions. Have their grades slipped? Are they shirking responsibilities and overtly angry or agitated? While one of these issues in isolation may not indicate alcoholism, when taken as a whole they provide a barometer for measuring what is going on.
Alcohol & Mental Health
It’s vital to understand that problem drinking and mental health challenges often go hand in hand. If your loved one is drinking to excess, it could be a desperate attempt to self-medicate a deeper mental health problem like anxiety, depression, trauma, or ADHD — all of which can be professionally treated. At the same time, excessive drinking can cause depression and other mental health issues to take root or worsen. In short, it’s not a harmless habit and it deserves proper treatment.
Get Help for a Binge Drinking Young Adult
It is also important to remember that the son or daughter in your life who is struggling with alcoholism is not a bad person. This is not a failure of parenting or lack of moral fortitude. They are someone suffering from a progressive, terminal disease. Watching your child struggle is one of the hardest parts of being a parent. The best way to approach your loved one if you think they are struggling is with love, compassion and strong boundaries.
Alcoholism is not a phase they will get over. It is not a normal part of the teenage experience. Justifying the negative alcoholic behaviors of your child will not solve the problem. On the other hand, professional medical care could be the greatest gift you ever give them.
Specializing in young adult recovery, Momentum is uniquely suited to answer your questions and guide you through having a conversation with your loved one about their drinking and helping to guide them into treatment. They deserve a better, happier, life — and so do you.