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Learning About Alcohol Use Disorder in Teens

What is alcohol use disorder?

If you have an alcohol use disorder, it means that you drink alcohol even though it's causing harm to yourself or others.

Alcohol use disorder can range from mild to severe. The more symptoms of this disorder you have, the more severe it may be. If you have it, you may find it hard to control your use of alcohol.

If you have this disorder, you may argue with others about how much you drink. Your schoolwork or job may be affected because of drinking. You may drink when it's dangerous or illegal, such as when you drive. Or you may engage in unsafe sex. This can lead to pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Your drinking may increase your risk of getting hurt or being in a car crash.

You also may have a strong need, or craving, to drink. You may feel like you must drink just to get by. It may get harder to say "no" to drinking. You may start to find alcohol more fun than anything else. Or you may want to stop drinking but can't. Your body may get used to alcohol. This is called physical dependence.

You may think that a drink or two is okay, even if it's illegal. Or you may think that it's okay if you only drink on the weekends. You may even think that binge drinking is okay. But teens who drink are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder than people who start drinking later in life.

Over time, drinking too much alcohol may cause health problems. These problems may include high blood pressure, liver problems, and problems with digestion.

Why do teens drink alcohol?

Teens may drink alcohol for many reasons. They may want to:

  • Fit in with friends or certain groups.
  • Feel good.
  • Seem more grown up.
  • Rebel against adults.
  • Escape problems. For example, teens may drink to try to:
    • Avoid the symptoms of mental health conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or depression.
    • Ease feelings of insecurity.
    • Forget about emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.

What problems can alcohol cause?

Alcohol can change how well you make decisions, how well you think, and how quickly you can react. It can make it hard for you to control your actions. Alcohol use can:

  • Make car crashes more likely. If you drink and drive, you can easily crash and hurt yourself or others. Don't drive if you have been drinking. And don't ride in a car (or any type of vehicle) with someone who has been drinking.
  • Lead to unprotected sex. This can lead to pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
  • Cause you to do things you wouldn't usually do. You may say things that hurt your friends or do something illegal that could result in paying a large fine, losing your driver's licence, or having other legal problems.
  • Cause you to lose interest in school and your future. Poor grades or lack of focus may make it harder to reach your dreams.

Alcohol use also can change how you feel about your life. It can increase the risk of anxiety, depression, and suicide.

How do you say no to alcohol?

If someone offers you a drink, here are some ways to say "no."

  • Look the person in the eye and say "No thanks." Sometimes that is all you need to do. Say it as many times as you need to. Also ask the person not to ask you again: "I'm cool with my decision, so don't bother me again."
  • Say why you don't want to drink. Here are some examples: "I don't like how I act when I'm drinking," "I like to know what I'm doing," "If my parents find out, they won't let me drive," or "I have to practice with my band tomorrow."
  • Walk out. It's okay to leave a party or group where others are drinking.
  • Offer another idea. "I'd rather play video games" or "Let's listen to some music." By doing this, you might also prevent your friend from drinking.
  • Ask for respect. Make it clear that you don't want to drink and that continuing to ask you is showing no respect for your opinions. "I don't give you a hard time, so why are you giving me a hard time?"
  • Think ahead. If you think you might go someplace where people are drinking, don't go. But if you do go, think in advance about what you will do if someone offers you a drink.

How is alcohol use disorder treated?

Some teens are able to stop drinking with help from a school alcohol education program or a counsellor. Treatment also can include group therapy. Teens who have moderate to severe alcohol use disorder may need medical treatment. They may need to stay in a hospital or treatment centre.

Treatment focuses on more than alcohol. It also helps you cope with the anger, frustration, sadness, and disappointment that often happen when a person tries to stop drinking.

Treatment also looks at other parts of your life, like your relationships with friends and family, school and work, medical problems, and living situation. It helps you find and manage problems. Treatment helps you take control of your life so you don't need to drink alcohol. Family counselling often is part of treatment.

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