As a parent, you’re often on the lookout for anything amiss with your teen or young adult. But you may not be watching for a serious issue that can have dangerous and even deadly consequences: binge drinking.
“It’s a pretty big problem because in our culture and our society, it’s so normalized — and not only normalized, but it’s actually very glamorized in our culture to binge drink,” said Brittany Woodward, an associate marriage and family therapist at Embark at Campbell, an outpatient therapy clinic in California.
Keep reading to learn more about this alarming behavior, including how you can help your son or daughter stop it.
What Is Binge Drinking?
A simple binge drinking definition is that it’s excessive alcohol use. Diving deeper, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) describes it as a pattern of consumption that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or higher. For a typical adult, this means having four or more drinks if you’re a female or five or more drinks if you’re a male, all in about two hours.
But what’s the threshold for ages 17 and under? During a roughly two-hour period, how many drinks is considered binge drinking?
According to an article in Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the NIAAA, it takes fewer drinks to reach that 0.08% BAC level. This is due in part to younger people’s smaller body size. The journal shared:
- For ages 9-13, it takes three or more drinks for boys or girls.
- For ages 14-15, it’s three or more for girls and four or more for boys.
- For ages 16-17, it’s three or more for girls and five or more for boys.
So how serious is young adult and teen binge drinking? The 2020 National Survey of Drug Use and Health shared:
- In 2020, 50% of people ages 12 or older used alcohol in the past month.
- Among current alcohol users, 44.4% were classified as binge drinkers.
- The percentage of people who were past-month binge alcohol users was highest among young adults ages 18-25 (31.4%), compared with 22.9% of adults ages 26 or older and 4.1% of adolescents ages 12-17.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has similar findings, reporting that binge drinking is most common among younger adults ages 18-34.
Woodward said age plays a role in alcohol abuse problems in youths because the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, typically doesn’t finish developing until the mid-20s. That area of the brain is responsible for tasks including decision making. When it’s not fully developed, Woodward explained, young people are more likely to act on their impulses, including misusing alcohol.
Binge Drinking Effects
As mentioned earlier, the effects of binge drinking can be dangerous — and deadly. People who drink excessively are at risk for:
- Motor vehicle and other accidents (e.g., falls, burns, and drownings).
- Unsafe sexual behavior and sexually transmitted diseases.
- Sexual assault.
- Unintended pregnancies and complications, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which can cause physical and learning issues in children.
- Chronic diseases, including high blood pressure and liver disease.
- Several types of cancer, including liver, breast, esophageal, and colon cancers.
- Alcohol use disorder (AUD).
- Alcohol poisoning, which can result in death.
Woodward noted that one of the potential long-term effects of binge drinking is changes to the brain structure, which can affect functioning. For example, NIAAA research has indicated that heavy drinking over a roughly two-hour period during the teen years could cause lingering deficits in attention, memory, and other cognitive functions.
How To Identify Binge Drinking
To determine if your son or daughter has a binge drinking problem, Woodward said to watch out for physical and behavioral changes, as substance use typically affects multiple areas of a young person’s life. This can include their health, hygiene, relationships, and school functioning.
People who binge drink can show signs including:
- Bloodshot eyes.
- Changes in sleep habits, such as sleep disturbances.
- Decreased hygiene.
- Changes in friend groups.
- Lower engagement at school.
- Loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed.
- Increased irritability and angry outbursts.
- More aggressive behavior.
“If you notice several of those signs, that’s a good indicator there’s a problem,” Woodward said.
How To Stop Binge Drinking
Once you determine your son or daughter is engaging in excessive alcohol use, how do you help them stop binge drinking?
One of the first steps is to have a conversation about the issue. Avoid arguments, Woodward said, and instead calmly discuss how, when, and why they’re consuming alcohol. Find out if they’re drinking excessively to cope, numb themselves, or forget about stressors in their lives. Also, are they doing it to the point that they black out or engage in risky behaviors or only in a social setting where they feel pressured to participate?
As part of that conversation, consider your family history. If there’s a pattern of substance abuse, Woodward recommended you share that information (if you haven’t already), as there’s a significant genetic component around addiction. According to the NIAAA, research shows that genes account for about half the risk for alcohol use disorder.
Woodward also advised making sure your son or daughter understands the risks of binge drinking, including how alcohol consumption can affect the brain.
“Having an open conversation is really important, and if you’re noticing there are causes for concern, reach out and get them professional help and support,” she said, adding that those causes for concern include blacking out, engaging in reckless behaviors, and using alcohol to self-medicate so they can cope with difficult emotions or a mental illness.
If you decide to reach out for binge drinking help, you can find therapists and treatment facilities by using the search tools at Psychology Today or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
If your son or daughter is living at home, there are additional steps you can take to support them. Woodward said several protective factors can help them stop binge drinking, including:
- Have firm boundaries rooted in physical and emotional safety.
- Establish and communicate clear expectations for their behavior.
- Promote good emotional connections with family members and caregivers.
- Encourage them to get involved in school and community activities.
Woodward noted that the last protective factor can be key because boredom can be a huge factor in people who drink excessively.
Binge Drinking: Putting It All Together
Excessive alcohol use is a serious issue for young people. If you suspect — or know — your son or daughter is engaging in this behavior, calmly discuss the issue with them. Then, take steps to help them quit binge drinking. Reach out for professional assistance if needed, and remember to implement protective factors such as ensuring they have good emotional connections with their family and caregivers.
“Having an open, healthy relationship with your child will set the stage for productive conversations about binge drinking, which can help them make better choices moving forward,” Woodward said.
Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!