Dealing with alcohol misuse

Despite your best efforts, you may not be able to prevent your adolescent from drinking. If they do, you should be concerned, but remember that many adolescents drink, yet few develop alcohol problems.

Know the signs that indicate your adolescent may be misusing alcohol, and do not ignore any concerns that you have (See box on Warning signs that indicate your adolescent may be misusing alcohol). If your adolescent comes home drunk, wait until they are sober before talking to them about their behaviour. You should know how to respond if your adolescent has a medical emergency due to intoxication (see Helping Someone with a Drinking Problem Mental Health First Aid Guidelines).

Warning signs that indicate your adolescent may be misusing alcohol

There are no warning signs that definitely indicate an adolescent is engaged in risky drinking. However, there are a range of signs and behaviours that, when seen in combination, may indicate an adolescent is drinking excessively. These signs include:

  • Repeated health complaints
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Changes in mood, especially irritability
  • Starting arguments, withdrawing from the family or breaking family rules
  • Dropping grades, frequent school absences or discipline problems at school
  • Changes in social activities and social groups

These signs can also result from other physical and psychological problems. If you observe a number of these signs in your adolescent child, consider consulting your GP to rule out other potential causes.

(Adapted from: American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Teens: Alcohol and other Drugs, 2008; No 3. May)


Talk to your adolescent about your concerns

When approaching your adolescent about their alcohol misuse, try to stay calm. Allow them to tell their side of the story and do not lecture them. Use dealing with your adolescent’s alcohol misuse as an opportunity to maintain or improve communication between yourself and your adolescent. Find out as much as you can about your adolescent’s understanding and beliefs about alcohol, and about how drinking makes them feel. Tell them what concerns you about their alcohol use, such as that they have broken the rules or that they have put their health and safety at risk. Take care to communicate that you disapprove of the behaviour, not the adolescent themselves. Use ‘I’ statements, such as ‘I feel very upset about you drinking at that party’ rather than you statements such as ‘you are a lying, untrustworthy child’. If you are unsure of how to approach your adolescent about their alcohol misuse, consider enlisting the help of someone knowledgeable, such as a family doctor or a counsellor.