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Is Alcohol a Drug? The Effects of Drinking on Teens

Alcohol can be a dangerous habit for teens. From its widespread availability and societal acceptance to the potential to worsen mental health issues, parents need to understand if alcohol is a drug and how it affects the teen brain.

We asked the Clinical Director, Kenneth DeBlock, and Substance Abuse Counselor, Josiah Johnson, from Embark Behavioral Health in Independence, Missouri to explain if alcohol is a drug, whether alcohol affects young people, and what parents should look out for if they suspect teen drinking.

Is Alcohol Considered a Drug? 

Yes, it’s a drug, like other substances that impact the brain. Culturally, we tend to distinguish it as socially acceptable and mainstream, yet it is considered a drug due to its impact on the brain,” stated Johnson.

Like other substances, alcohol is a drug that can create a dangerous reliance on drinking to feel good or it can be used as a coping mechanism to deal with stress or relationship issues. However, the adverse effects of alcohol can be just as serious as other drugs and, in some cases, life-threatening. Unfortunately, for many teens and young adults, its consumption can lead to addiction, impaired decision-making, and long-term health problems.

Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant? 

Alcohol is a stimulant and a depressant, which makes it a dangerous drug that can accelerate and, at the same time, slow down brain function and reduce coordination, according to DeBlock.

Johnson noted that a stimulant and depressant like alcohol is interesting because, overall, it is a depressant but in the beginning stages of drinking or in a small dosage, it can act like a stimulant, especially in teens. Initially, you’ll experience an uplifting, positive feeling. However, with increased use over time, this effect reverses, leading to the onset of depressive symptoms and negative emotions, including a diminished self-perception.

Are Alcohol and Other Drugs Commonly Used Together?

It can be common for teens to use alcohol and other drugs together in dangerous combinations. When combined with other drugs, such as marijuana or Adderall and Ritalin, the risks multiply, leading to harmful consequences for young individuals navigating complex issues like stress and relationships.

According to DeBlock and Josiah, it can be very common for teens and young adults to minimize drug use because they are partying or inebriated, but the long-term impacts of using drugs in combination with alcohol can be severe. It’s important for parents to know the street names and terms teens will use for alcohol and drug abuse and to address substance use early on.

How Does Alcohol Affect Teen and Young Adult Mental Health?

Alcohol is a drug that can cause anxiety, depression, and worsening mental health issues in teens and young adults, as well as dangerous physical effects such as alcohol poisoning or alcohol overdose.

According to DeBlock, plenty of evidence shows that depression, alcohol use, and anxiety are closely linked. Interestingly, although alcohol might seem like a quick fix, it tends to make symptoms of depression and anxiety worse in the long run.

  • Anxiety– Alcohol works like a drug in that it can disrupt the way the brain functions, leading to heightened stress responses and exacerbating feelings of unease and worry in teens.
  • Depression– Alcohol can harm mental health by disrupting moods, creating a cycle where drinking becomes a coping mechanism, fostering a negative self-perception in teens, and worsening social isolation or avoidance issues.
  • Worsening Mental Health– Excessive alcohol use can worsen existing mental health issues, leading to a dangerous cycle of dependency and worsening mental health in teens.

Why do Teens Start Drinking Alcohol? 

According to DeBlock and Josiah, teens start drinking and using alcohol like a drug due to impulsive decision making, desire to experiment with alcohol, peer pressure, media portrayal, stress and anxiety relief, normalization in media, and parent behavior such as enabling, passivity, or drinking habits.  

“It’s portrayed that alcohol should be drunk into excess, so you go to parties to get drunk. You don’t go to parties to drink just a little bit.”

Kenneth DeBlock

Here’s what parents need to know about the reasons teens start drinking:

  1. Experimenting with Alcohol: Teens can be at risk for alcohol because they want to experiment with alcohol at parties, which, in combination with undeveloped or poor decision-making skills, can be dangerous.
  2. Peer Pressure and Fitting In: Alcohol is a drug that many teens may start due to peer pressure or enabling from friends who invite them to parties or have started abusing alcohol.
  3. Stress and Anxiety Relief: According to Johnson, teens can also use alcohol for stress and anxiety relief. This can be an unhealthy coping mechanism of self-medication that they may learn from parents or friends.
  4. Normalization and Popularity in Media: Teens may also start using alcohol due to its popularity in media and social media. For example, DeBlock noted, “It’s portrayed in movies and media, as you’re only going to receive a positive benefit from it if you’re drunk.”
  5. Parent Behavior and Passive Enabling: Teens may start abusing alcohol or using it like a drug due to parents who allow it to happen enable their teens to drink in their home or use alcohol themselves and teach young people this behavior.
Parents enable and promote alcohol use by drinking around teen daughter.
Parents enable and promote alcohol use by drinking around teen daughter.

What are the Warning Signs of Alcohol Use in Teens and Young Adults? 

According to DeBlock and Josiah, some of the biggest warning signs of alcohol use can be social isolation, mood swings, irritability, depression, and increased secrecy or lying. It’s important for parents to be aware of these warning signs and take steps toward helping their teens if they see them.

Why is it Dangerous for Teens and Young Adults to Drink? 

Alcohol is a drug that can be dangerous for teens and young adults to start using due to the increased risk of suicide attempts, self-harm, depression, worsening mental health issues, and the increased risk of long-term addiction.

“Many times, they mention trying substances once or twice at home, but what’s really concerning is the deeper issue – they might be dealing with self-harm or having thoughts of suicide,” said DeBlock.

Other studies have shown the seriousness of alcohol use in teens and young adults. For example, a study published in the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry noted that youths who start drinking before the age of 14 were significantly more likely to report mental health difficulties, use a greater number of substances, and have more problems with crime and violence.

What Are the First Steps If I Suspect My Teen is Using Alcohol? 

According to DeBlock and Johnson, some of the best steps that parents can take to help teens and young adults with alcohol use can be to communicate with empathy, investigate warning signs, promote a healthy lifestyle, set boundaries on alcohol use, and remove alcohol from your home.

1. Discuss Alcohol Use with Empathy and Openness 

Father talks to teen son who is using alcohol like a drug.
Father talks to teen son who is using alcohol like a drug.

Discussing alcohol use with teens and young adults can be one of the biggest things parents can do to help teens and young adults with alcohol use according to DeBlock and Johnson. Johnson said this is important because “it’s important to show your interest in their lives by initiating conversations. Once you understand their situation, especially if they seem withdrawn, it’s advisable to seek further assistance.”

Here’s how DeBlock and Johnson stated parents can talk to teens about alcohol use:

  • Ask openly and without judgment what’s going on in your teen’s life.
  • Ask if there’s a reason they’re drinking, for example, are they depressed, anxious, or stressed.
  • Be aware that sometimes teens will lie about alcohol use when they are struggling.
  • If you’re concerned, talk to your teens further and discuss treatment options with them.

2. Set Boundaries and Monitor Behavior 

According to DeBlock and Johnson, boundaries can help teens and young adults significantly who are using alcohol like a drug. When discussing boundaries with teens, it’s crucial to establish clear guidelines for all aspects of life, including relationships, responsibilities, alcohol use, and behavior. Without these boundaries, teens and young adults may struggle to understand what is acceptable.

“If we avoid discussing healthy boundaries, they’ll inevitably inhabit those gray areas. The ultimate goal of a parent in setting healthy boundaries at home is to equip a child with the skills to establish and maintain personal healthy boundaries for themselves.”

Kenneth DeBlock

3. Lock up or Remove Alcohol from the Home 

According to DeBlock, if your teen or young adult is showing signs of depression or suicidal ideation, locking up or removing the alcohol from your home can be an essential step to removing the temptation and access to alcohol. By ensuring that alcohol is not readily available at home, parents can create a safer environment that supports healthier choices and reduces the risk of substance misuse in teens.

4. Use Family Support Systems and Support Groups

According to DeBlock and Johnson, family support systems greatly impact the cycle of substance use. According to DeBlock, “A teen’s primary support system is going to be their family.” Parental involvement in a teen or young adult’s life is essential in creating a nurturing and stable environment conducive to healing or overcoming alcohol used as a drug.

Healthy support groups with good leadership and a positive community can help young people. DeBlock and Johnson noted that it’s important for parents to research and find a good program, as the wrong community support group could enable young adults to use alcohol like a drug further.

5. Find Treatment 

According to DeBlock and Johnson, earlier treatment of alcohol use that is happening alongside mental health conditions can be better. For teens and young adults who start using alcohol like a drug, the longer substance use goes on, the more the brain can be affected, and the more mental health conditions like anxiety and depression can worsen.

A co-occurring substance use and mental health residential treatment center can be one of the best treatment options for teens or young adults to overcome using alcohol like a drug, as well as mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. A residential treatment center can help provide a supportive environment where young people can reset and receive individual therapy, family therapy, and substance use counseling, that can break unhealthy cycles of alcohol use with the guidance of trained mental health professionals and therapists.

If you’d like to learn more about residential treatment for substance use, take a look at our treatment center in Missouri, helping teens ages 12-18 overcome difficult mental health and substance use issues.

Alcohol as a Drug: Moving Forward 

If you are a parent or teen and wondering “Is alcohol a drug?”, the answer is yes, and the sooner signs and symptoms are addressed and discussed the better a treatment outcome can be for a teen or young adult. It’s important for parents to keep an eye on warning signs like increased secrecy, lying, or depression and to communicate with teens and young adults early on before alcohol abuse becomes a damaging addiction.

Seeking treatment at a co-occurring substance use and mental health residential treatment center can be highly effective in helping teens and young adults overcome using alcohol like a drug and address underlying mental health issues. If you think your teen or young adult is showing troubling patterns of alcohol use with mental health issues, contact us at 866-479-3050.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.