17 Jul
2011

Not unexpectedly accompanying adolescent drinking there are also alcohol problems. To cite just a few of the statistics from the ever-growing pile:In the 13 to 17 year age group, it is estimated there are three million problem drinkers, and over three hundred thousand teenage alcoholicsDrinking is a significant problem for between 10% and 20% of adolescents.11% of adolescents and 28% of high school seniors drink 5 or more drinks at least once a week.97% of drug-abusing adolescents also use alcohol.Over the last 20 years, life expectancy has increased for all age groups except ages 15 to 24. The three leading causes of death in this age group are accidents, suicide, and homicide, all closely linked to alcohol and drug use.The leading cause of death between ages 16 and 24 is driving while impaired.Drivers age 16 to 24 years constitute 17% of the population; they are involved in 48% of fatal accidents.Daily, 14 adolescents, age 15 to 19 years, die and 360 are injured in alcohol-related traffic accidents.One way to understand the high incidence of problems with substance abuse in adolescence is in terms of the adolescent developmental tasks cited earlier. The first task mentioned was the acceptance of one’s biological role. For women the onset of their menstrual cycle provides clear biological evidence of their transition to adult functioning. For males the transition may be more difficult. But for both in contemporary America the question of how to know you are an adult is often difficult. For many adolescents drinking serves as a rite of passage. Not only is it an adult activity, it is also one way to be “one of the crowd.” Drinking can provide entry to a group of peers. Even as an adult one is often encouraged to drink and given messages that not to drink is to be antisocial. For adolescents with their intolerance of differences and their increased vulnerability to following along with peers’ behavior, not drinking at a party where others are drinking may be even harder for teenagers than for adults.Also, an important part of accepting one’s biological role is learning to be intimate with those of the opposite sex. This can be threatening to many adolescents. Alcohol can be used to avoid intimacy, or to seek intimacy without responsibility. “I wasn’t myself last night, I was really plastered” can be said by either boys or girls to disavow what happened the night before. The same is true in the sexual realm, as a means of experimenting without taking responsibility. In our society being drunk has long provided a “way out.” Often people are not held accountable for actions that occur when they are drunk. Thus, getting drunk can often help adolescents express these increasingly powerful impulses, without really taking direct responsibility for their behavior.Part of the task of attaining independence is learning to set limits for themselves, to develop self-control. For some adolescents this is more difficult than for others. It is particularly difficult about issues like drinking where societal messages and alcohol advertising suggest that “having more than one” is appropriate adult behavior. In the process of learning self-control, adolescents react negatively to adults setting limits. If parents are too aggressive in forbidding alcohol use, it may backfire. Further confusing matters is that adolescent development is characterized as well by changes in patterns of thinking. Prior to age 12 to 13, adolescents generally adhere to concrete rules for behavior. From ages 13 to 15 years, adolescents are likely to question the justification of set rules. They feel that conventions are arbitrary, hence rules supporting them are invalid. By the age of 16 most of them begin to realize that some rules are necessary.Another important task mentioned earlier is the development of a sense of identity. Part of the task of gaining an independent identity involves experimentation in all realms. Adolescents may use alcohol for help in experimenting with different roles and identities. Closely connected to this experimentation is risk taking. Some of this risk taking involves physical danger. Adolescents are said to have a “sense of invulnerability.” Unfortunately, alcohol can further increase this sense of invulnerability and lead to risk taking with dangerous consequences. It is not surprising, as mentioned earlier, that accidents are the leading cause of death in adolescents, and that alcohol use and abuse is heavily implicated in fatal accidents from all causes.As these adolescent developmental tasks are accomplished, the number of problem drinkers decreases. But for a significant proportion of problem drinkers, these problems will persist and grow worse. For far too many, the problem drinking may end in death or disability, long before either outcome.*148\331\2*

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