Patterns of Alcohol Abuse

American Academy of Pediatrics

The same pattern of use and abuse exists for alcohol as with other drugs such as marijuana or cocaine. Experts have noted the following stages of alcohol use:

Stage 1: Experimenting with alcohol. 

There may be strong peer pressure to use alcohol “just for fun” and to be part of the group. Most use happens on weekends. There often is no change in behavior between uses.

Stage 2: Actively seeking alcohol. 

Alcohol is used to produce good feelings during times of stress. Usage occurs during the week. Schoolwork may suffer. Changes in behavior may include:

  • an increase in time spent alone
  • a decline in communication with family members, frequent arguing, and a high level of secretiveness
  • changes in dress and grooming
  • changes in choice of friends
  • repeated or unexplained injuries or fights
  • poor sleeping habits and a lack of energy
  • irregular eating habits
  • bloodshot eyes
  • mood changes, including irritability and depression
  • running away from home
  • attempting suicide

Keep in mind that some of these symptoms occur from time to time in normal, nonalcohol-using teens, and none alone is proof of alcohol or drug use. However, a combination of any of the above symptoms may signal a problem.

Stage 3: Preoccupation with alcohol. 

There is an almost total loss of control over the use of alcohol. Attempts to limit alcohol use at this stage can cause withdrawal symptoms of depression, moodiness, and irritability. Alcoholic beverages may disappear from the home. There is a danger of turning to other drugs or stronger forms of liquor. Family possessions may also disappear as the alcohol user seeks money to support his habit. There may be trouble with the law for these same reasons.

As with any disease, prevention is the best treatment. Parents should set a good example at home by limiting their own use of alcohol and other drugs. Having a drink should never be shown as a way to cope with problems. Don’t drink in unsafe conditions –- driving the car, mowing the lawn, using the stove, etc. Don’t encourage your child to drink or to join you in having a drink. Never make jokes about getting drunk; make sure that your children understand that it is neither funny nor acceptable. Show your children that there are many ways to have fun without alcohol. Happy occasions and special events don’t have to include drinking.

Parents who don’t drink should be aware that this alone will not guarantee their children and teenagers won’t use alcohol. Parents who are alcoholics or problem drinkers place their children at increased risk of alcohol dependence. Studies suggest that alcoholism may run in the family. One out of 5 young adults with an alcoholic parent is likely to become an alcoholic too.

Education about alcohol should begin early. Parents can help their children resist alcohol use in these ways:

  • Give your child a sense of confidence. This is the best defense against peer pressure. Build your child’s self-esteem with praise and avoid frequent criticism.
  • Listen to what your child says. Pay attention, and be helpful during periods of loneliness or doubt.
  • Know who your child’s friends are and make a point to get to know them.
  • Provide parental supervision. Don’t allow your teen to attend parties where alcohol is being served. Insist that a parent be present at parties to supervise. Contact other parents to arrange alcohol-free social events.
  • Offer a “free call home.” Drinking and driving may lead to death. Make sure your child knows not to ride with a driver who has been drinking. Let him know that he can call home without fear of consequences that night. Discuss the incident the next day.
  • Help your child learn to handle strong emotions and feelings. Model ways to control stress, pain, or tension.
  • Talk about things that are important issues for your child, including alcohol, drugs, and the need for peer-group acceptance.
  • Encourage enjoyable and worthwhile outside things to do; avoid turning leisure time into chores.
  • Join your child in learning all you can about preventing alcohol abuse. Programs offered in schools, churches, and youth groups can help you both learn more about alcohol abuse.

Your pediatrician understands that good communication between parents and children is one of the best ways to prevent alcohol use. If talking with your teenager about alcohol is difficult, your pediatrician may be able to help open the lines of communication. If you suspect your child is using alcohol or any other drug, ask your pediatrician for advice and help.

© Copyright 2000 American Academy of Pediatrics