By: Helaina Hovitz
Original Source: www.teenvogue.com
Underage drinking is illegal, but it happens a lot. More than 4,750 kids every day under age 16 take their first drink here in the U.S.—so chances are, if you haven’t taken a drink yet, one of your friends has. Experimentation is normal, but it’s not always in good fun: teen drinking results in approximately 4,300 deaths every year, and almost 200,000 emergency room visits.
None of your friends sound like the type? Keep your eyes peeled anyway: catching a problem now may save your friend from serious consequences down the road.
“If you start drinking before you’re 15 years old, you’re actually four times more likely to meet criteria for alcohol dependency later on,” said Dr. Daniel Bober, a psychiatrist and adolescent addiction specialist. “Teens are drinking 10% of all alcohol consumed in the U.S. every year, and 90% of teen drinking is in the form of binge drinking. A lot of people are putting their health and safety at risk.” The legal drinking age is 21, and while the reasons for that may not necessarily be medical, there is a lot of evidence showing how dangerous underage drinking is. Underage drinking is the main contributor to injury deaths, which is the leading cause of death for people under age 21, can lead to alcohol poisoning, and have effects on the developing brain.
That fine line between experimentation and something “riskier” can be hard to navigate, so we enlisted the help of experts to help pinpoint the signs of a potential drinking problem.
1. Your friendship is noticeably affected
Jaime Gleicher, LMSW, says that if your pal has been “switching groups” and gravitating towards people who party and have access to alcohol, that could spell trouble.
“If your friend is consistently putting you in weird situations or asking you to go against your beliefs, values, and your own safety to maintain the friendship, this is a sign that something may be wrong,” she says.
If your friend is blowing you off, wanting to be alone, and cancelling plans, those are all warning signs.
2. They’re not showing up, or they’re showing up drunk.
If your friend is starting to miss school, skip regular activities like sports or dance classes, or begins suddenly cancelling plans with you or avoiding time with family, Gleicher believes that could be a red flag.
“Have you noticed that your friend seems to not be enjoying or avoiding the things they normally love to do? Are their grades suffering? Are they avoiding class or school, missing sports practices, rehearsals or dance classes? Loss of interest or effort can be sign of a problem,” she says.
Worse still, if your friend is drinking alone, day drinking, or showing up to the aforementioned while under the influence, that’s just not normal.
“If you catch your friend drinking alone, drinking during the school day, during the day on weekends or drinking at inappropriate times, like showing up to social situations while already drunk, this is cause for alarm.”
3. They’re changing, and not for the better.
Whitney Baliett, MA, LADC, Clinician at Mountainside Treatment Center, says that important signifier that your friend might be abusing alcohol is changes in personality and behavior.
“Alcohol tends to make people feel better in the moment, but, in the long term, acts as a depressant,” she says.
Look out for increased irritability, mood swings, angry outbursts and patterns of isolation, and can create the cycle of drinking to try and make those feelings go away, only to make things worse in the long run.
4. They act even less like themselves when they drink.
If your friend is usually respectful to themselves and others, and becomes disrespectful while under the influence, this is a huge warning sign.
Gleicher says there are three major examples to keep an eye out for:
- Your friend is usually reserved and self-respecting around members of the opposite sex, yet tends to become wild and promiscuous while drinking.
- Your friend usually practices good judgment, caution and safety, yet becomes a daredevil or wants to engage in risky behaviors.
- Your friend is usually anti- other substances and wants to engage in use of other drugs while under the influence.
5. They say they’ll stop at one or two drinks, but then can’t.
“We all have that friend who just can’t stop once they start, who always needs to be escorted back home after getting very drunk, ends up kneeling over the toilet, vomiting,” says Gleicher.
If your friend is consistently the one who must be held over the toilet at the end of the night, or is always the one who needs to be assisted back home, the one who “can’t handle their alcohol” it could be a sign that something is up.
But, since this tends to happen with teenagers when they start to experiment and over-do it, once or twice isn’t necessarily cause for alarm.
“Most teenagers, after having a night of vomiting or being hungover, will make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Gleicher says. “The more often this DOES happen again, the more likely it is that your friend is struggling with self-control.”
6. They start carrying alcohol around with them.
Another thing to look out for is if your friend brings alcohol with them wherever they go – to a friend’s house, to the movies, and so forth, whether it’s concealed vodka in a water bottle or a flask full of schnapps.
“If and when you confront them about this, they might say they are drinking to feel ‘normal’ or to ‘have fun,’” says Kim Cognato, an Outpatient Program Manager at Mountainside Treatment Center. “That in itself is a warning sign.”
7. There are, in more serious cases, physical signs.
Be wary of symptoms like bloodshot eyes, puffy or swollen face, weight loss or gain, shakiness, a change in her personal hygiene and how well she’s taking care of herself, and whether she seems to be less coordinated.
Naturally, if it’s finals week, and all else seems sound, don’t jump to conclusions. But if it’s reoccurring during “normal” times, it may be cause for concern; especially, says Gleicher, if you can see any bruises on their body, since injuries like those are more likely to happen while under the influence.
Naturally, the above is not easy to call out without risking a serious offense…..
….So what’s a friend to do if signs point to “yes?”
Firstly, says Gleicher, here’s what not to do: play therapist in an attempt to diagnose or label your friend as an alcoholic yourself. Nobody likes to be labeled, and your friend’s drinking problem is not your responsibility to solve or fix — nor is it your place to do so.
“Please don’t be the keeper of your friend’s dangerous secret, even if you feel the friendship is in jeopardy if you tell someone,” she cautions. “Instead, gently confront him or her, using ‘I statements,’ such as, ‘I feel concerned about you,’ or ‘I love you and care about you, and I think this is really effecting you negatively.’
It’s also important, Gleicher notes, to validate your friend’s feelings so they don’t feel judged. Try, “I get it, life is really tough sometimes. I know how hard this is and I’m here for you,” Or, “I know drinking is really fun, but it’s also getting dangerous. Let’s make a pact to stay sober tonight.”
Baliett believes it’s important to confront your friend about the impact it’s having on your relationship.
“Highlight the way things used to be and the positives of your relationship before your friend was drinking, and discuss what you feel has slipped away due to the drinking problem,” she says.
“Keep in mind that no matter how it goes, engaging in this conversation may have planted the seed of recover, even if you don’t get the response that you had hoped for.
Another option is writing a letter to your friend, says Cognato. Writing it down might be easier than approaching them in person, and could provide a safer space for you, emotionally, to tell your pal that miss your friendship, and you’re concerned.
It may sound cheesy, but telling your friend’s parents or a guidance counselor could be the best route, since it might ultimately save their life.
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