Teens and Alcohol Use

This blog post has been provided by Major Nancy Powers, the Program Development Officer at The Freedom Center, which houses the Harbor Light Center, the Pathway Forward program and a corps community center. She has been with The Salvation Army for nearly 20 years and has several decades of experience treating substance abuse.

The use of alcohol is prevalent in our society. There are happy hours, pub crawls, congratulatory toasts, food and wine pairings, and more. Enjoying an alcoholic beverage is not bad as long as it is done in moderation and safely. We encounter problems when the occasional drink becomes a regular part of our day and infringes on other activities. These issues are compounded when the person with the drinking problem is a teen.

Key Behaviors to Look For

Teenagers have a lot to deal with including emotional, physical and hormonal changes. They’re not children and yet not quite adults. This is often a time when they start taking risks and testing boundaries. That can include experimenting with alcohol and drugs.

Here are some behaviors that may indicate you should have a conversation with your teen regarding using alcohol or drugs.


As part of asserting their independence, teenagers place a high premium on privacy. Children who never thought to conceal much of anything from their families suddenly become very protective of their world and selective about what they share with their parents. There is a difference, however, between craving privacy and being sneaky. For example, if your teen begins to lock his or her door that is not necessarily a problem. When your teen does answer the door, try to notice other things that might indicate more than privacy. These include: the smell of smoke, alcohol or drugs in their room or clothes; illicit paraphernalia; odd behavior such as paranoia, extreme drowsiness, anxiety, or low responsiveness. As a parent, you know your teen best and should be able to discern between normal and furtive behavior, and always keep an honest, open, non-judgmental dialogue with him or her.


Everything in a teen’s world has heightened significance, which often translates into elevated and unpredictable emotions. However, if an emotion persists over an extended period or there’s a detectable pattern, your child might be using drugs or alcohol. It is not unusual for a teen to seem sullen, angry, sad, or distant at times or to experience mood swings, but that should be the exception not the rule. Keep in mind that while these can be indicators of drug and alcohol abuse, they can also be signs of depression or a difficult situation you do not know about. The best way to know what is happening with your teen is to ask – but don’t begin your conversation asking about drug or alcohol use. Chances are you will not get an honest answer, whether your teen is abusing them or not. Expressing your concern and explaining the things you have noticed, however, could be the beginnings of a very important conversation.

Physical Appearance

It is not uncommon for teens to alter their appearance to keep up with the latest fashions or to express their viewpoint. What may seem drastic to you may just be them trying on a different persona. In large part, you have to pick your battles when a teen’s appearance is involved. For example, dyeing hair, applying elaborate makeup, or making unusual fashion choices are generally not a big deal. Significant weight loss/weight gain, sloppiness, decreased hygiene, and unusual skin pallor are all indicators something has changed and needs to be addressed. This could be substance abuse, but it can also indicate a change in mental health or the emergence of a medical issue. Address these concerns with sensitivity because these changes can be part of the normal growing process and are often a source of embarrassment.

Changes in Relationships and Interests

Teenagers frequently acquire new friends and interests. They may also leave behind friendships and activities from their past. All of this is normal behavior. It is alarming, however, if they actively avoid introducing you to these new friends or their old interests seem to be replaced with new ones. Grades are an excellent way of gauging your teen’s current situation. Slipping grades, while not uncommon, are a red flag and should not be ignored. If your once enthusiastically athletic or artistic child suddenly has no interest in sports or the arts, you should ask why the switch has occurred. Maybe he or she just wants to try something different or the pressure of school does not leave much time and energy for those activities. On the other hand, more serious matters like depression or drug/alcohol abuse could be the underlying cause.

Bad Behavior

All teens push their boundaries. Determining exactly what their behavior means depends upon degree and frequency. For example, many teenagers lie about why they missed curfew, but if they are habitually lying about where they are, whom they are with, and what they are doing, you should be concerned. Similarly, teens cut class or skip school once in a while. If your teen is skipping large chunks of school, however, that is worrisome. Lying, stealing, and disappearing for hours on end are not only unacceptable acts but also huge warning signs. The majority of teens are savvy enough to hide the early signs of drug and alcohol abuse. Confronting your teen about his or her bad behavior will help you decide if it is typical behavior or a part of larger, more serious problem.

What Do I Do?

When you notice any of these things, the first step is to approach your teen as calmly and neutrally as you can. A conversation that starts with accusations and assumptions will not help either of you. On the other hand, a discussion that begins with concern and openness should help you identify issues and bridge the gap between you and your teenager. If you confirm that you are dealing with the inherent turbulence of the teen years, breathe a sigh of relief, but keep the conversation and the observation going. While they may not want to admit it, you are still the best protection against the world’s ills that they have, and eventually, they will appreciate and thank you for it. If you discover that there is a mental health issue, a specific negative circumstance, or drug or alcohol abuse, you should seek professional help. The best way to combat serious issues is to catch them as early as possible.

The Salvation Army Harbor Light Center offers treatment and counseling for teens battling substance abuse. Visit the website or call 312.667.2246 for more information.



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