Teen Drinking and Behavior Problems

Two teenage boys (14-15) in hoods stealing items from school girl's bag
 Chris Whitehead/Getty Images

Teen drinking leads to behavior problems and issues with behavioral control. Adolescents age 12 to 17 who use alcohol are more likely to report behavioral issues, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Especially behavior that is aggressive, delinquent, or criminal.

There is a strong relationship, based on adolescent self-reporting, between alcohol use and emotional and behavioral problems, including:

  • Fighting
  • Stealing
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs
  • Skipping school
  • Feeling depressed

Illegal Drug Use

Adolescent alcohol users, regardless of whether they are heavy, binge, or light drinkers, report they are more likely to use illicit drugs than non-drinkers. SAMHSA reports current heavy drinkers were 16 times more likely than nondrinkers to have used an illicit drug in the past month. Light drinkers were eight times more likely to have used an illicit drug in the past month than non-drinking adolescents.

Drinking as a Cry for Help

Parents need to know that alcohol use can also be a warning sign or a cry for help that something is seriously wrong in a child's life. "If parents, counselors, teachers, and other caring adults reach children early enough, they can intervene before troubling behaviors lead to serious emotional disturbances, including:

Crime, Violence, and Suicide

Here are some sobering statistics about crime, violence, and suicide based on self-reporting from teens who claimed they were heavy drinkers. In this comparison with adolescent non-drinkers these teens were:

  • Four times more likely to steal something outside the home
  • Three times more likely to report deliberately trying to hurt or kill themselves
  • Three times more likely to report having gotten into a physical fight
  • Three times as likely to report engaging in destruction of property belonging to others
  • Four times more likely to report that they had gotten behind the wheel under the influence of drugs
  • Five times more likely run away from home
  • Five times more likely to say that they had driven under the influence of alcohol in the past year
  • Six times as likely to report skipping school
  • More than seven times more likely to have been arrested and charged with breaking the law

The Difference Between Light, Binge, and Heavy Drinkers

Teen drinking is defined in terms of it being non-drinkers, light, binge and heavy drinkers. SAMSHA defines heavy drinkers as those who consumed five or more drinks per occasion on five or more days in the previous 30 days; binge drinkers consumed five or more drinks on at least one occasion, but no more than four occasions during the previous 30 days; light drinkers consumed at least one, but fewer than five drinks on any occasion during the previous 30 days; and non-drinkers did not drink alcohol in the previous 30 days.

Prevalence of Underage Drinking

There was been an encouraging decline in heavy drinking and binge drinking by adolescents and young adults from 2002 to 2014. But there were still over 5 million binge drinkers and 1.3 million heavy drinkers in this population. More than 1 in 5 underage persons took a drink in the past month.

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