Underage Drinking: Trying to be Social or a Sign of Something Else?

Underage Drinking: Trying to be Social or a Sign of Something Else?


Depression is not uncommon in adolescents. According to the National institute of Mental Health (NIMH) (http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/major-depression-among-adolescents.shtml), around 11% of teens aged 12 to 17 experience an episode of major depression a year. With such staggering statistics, it is not surprising that a portion of these teens turn to alcohol to cope or even self-medicate.

The difficulty lies in discerning the difference between a teen who may drink to appear social and an adolescent suffering from depression.

Signs & Symptoms

What follows are some suggestions on how to determine if your teen may be showing signs of depression. It is important to note that depression entails a cluster of symptoms, so if your teen is experiencing only one of these signs there may be another reason.

  1. Hidden bottles of alcohol in his bedroom, especially bottles that are empty or half full. If he offers a somewhat reasonable answer, such as he was holding them for a party, it is important to investigate further. Look over the list that follows and ask yourself if he is showing any other signs that may be consistent with depression. Drinking alone is a big red flag that he is not feeling like himself.
  2. Suspicion is often based on intuition. No one knows your teen better than you do. If you have even a slight suspicion that your teen may be depressed and drinking it is time to play detective.
  3. Notable changes in appetite, sleep and/or appearance. If, for example, she has gained or lost a substantial amount of weight in a short period of time. If she no longer seems to care about her appearance (for example, she is wearing dirty clothes and, or not showering as often), this may also be a sign of depression.
  4. Increasingly isolative. If he is no longer hanging out with his friends and/or the family.
  5. Irritable, agitated and even angry. It is very common for teens who are depressed to present more as angry, as opposed to sad.
  6. Decreased or no interest in activities that previously brought much pleasure.
  7. Academic decline.

How to Respond

The first thing to do if you have concerns that your teen is dealing with depression is to talk with her. Let her know you have noticed these changes and that you are concerned. In addition, it is also helpful to speak to other adults who interact regularly with your teen, such as teachers and coaches. Check in with the parents of her closest friends and ask if the parents can get an impression about your teen’s behavior from their own child. Avoid contacting her friends directly, as this can put an unintended burden on another teen.

Take your teen to a professional counselor to be assessed. Although your teen may resist this, in reality, it is usually a relief for teens to talk with an outside professional about how they are feeling. In addition, it is helpful for a teen to become aware that she is not alone in what she feels, as depression in not uncommon in teens.

Underage drinking is always a concern. Understanding the circumstances certainly makes a difference, especially if consumption is actually a sign of depression.

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This article was written by

Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder is one of the tween, teen and parenting experts that participated in the focus groups that helped form the new educational campaign and website, TheAlcoholTalk.com. Her expertise and vast experience were also tapped for much of the advice and guidance included on the site. Her unique understanding of the communication techniques necessary for The Alcohol Talk to effectively take place make her an ideal spokesperson for the campaign. Dr. Powell-Lunder is a clinical psychologist specializing in work with tweens, teens, young adults, and their families. She is co-author of the book Teenage as a Second Language (Adams Media 2010) and the creator of www.itsatweenslife.com, an interactive and informational website for parents and tweens, and co-creator of www.Talkingteenage.com, an interactive informational website for the parents of teenagers. Jennifer is a regular contributor for outlets including Psychology Today, Parenting Magazine, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, GalTime, KnowMoreTV, Examiner, and North Texas Kids. She has also been featured in The Huffington Post, Yahoo, AOL’s ParentDish, Mamapedia and many other blogs and websites. As a parenting expert on both radio and television programs including NPR’s Talk of the Nation, NBC’s TODAY in New York, Better TV and WCBS, FOX and ABC affiliates, Jennifer talks about tween, teen and parenting issues. She was profiled in Westchester Magazine’s January 2012 feature on ‘People to Watch Jennifer is a published researcher, in-demand speaker and consultant on tween, teen, and young adult issues. She spent almost a decade as a Program Director of an inpatient adolescent psychiatric unit at a private psychiatric hospital in the Northeast where she now serves as Senior Clinical Liaison. She is also an adjunct professor of psychology at Pace University. Jennifer sits on the Board of Directors for Family Ties, a non-profit family advocacy agency serving Westchester County, NY and maintains a private outpatient practice in Bedford Hills, NY.

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