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Go Ask Mom

Underage drinking: Helping teens cope with stress can reduce binge drinking

Posted May 29

Drinking beer, underage drinking, alcohol

As we roll into high school graduation season and the long months of vacation, it's no surprise that underage drinking peaks in the summer.

After a year of homework, extracurricular activities, jobs, college prep and more, teens just have more time on their hands. But, the Poe Center for Health Education points to another reason: Adolescent binge drinkers are drinking to cope with stress.

"Childhood behaviors such as restlessness, distractibility, and impulsivity increase the likelihood of heavy drinking in adolescence," writes Rebecca Wenrich Wheeler, a senior health educator at the Raleigh-based center. "Stress not only may fuel adolescent binge drinking, but heavy drinking during these pivotal years impacts how the brain handles stress in the future."

According to research, Wheeler shares, as we age and learn to cope with stress, less cortisol, a hormone, is released. But, she writes, when teens binge drink, their brains don't learn to handle stress and that cortisol release doesn't drop over time when compared to peers who aren't drinking.

"Eventually the brain and body becomes unable to distinguish between a small stressor and something life threatening," she writes. "The brain reacts as if everything is life-threatening, thus increasing the reactive binge behavior."

The good news is that there's been a steady decline in underage drinking over the past decade, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. About 33 percent of high school seniors report having had alcohol in the past month; about 20 percent of high school sophomores; and about 7 percent of eighth graders.

But that doesn't mean it isn't still a big problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 percent of high school students binge drank in the last month. Excessive drinking leads to the more than 4,300 deaths of young people each year. And about 11 percent of all alcohol is consumed by tweens and teens, ages 12 to 20. More than 90 percent of that alcohol is consumed in the form of binge drinks.

But, Wheeler writes, "to understand what factors might prompt an adolescent to a binge drink, we must look beyond the notion of simply wanting a taste of 'forbidden fruit.'"

Indeed, stress, according to the American Psychological Association, may make teens more likely to use illegal drugs or drink alcohol, especially when they are not monitored. Stress, according to a survey of teens in 2013, is extremely common among teenagers, who ranked school, getting into a good college and deciding what to do after high school as top stressors.

The association recommends parents talk to their kids about stress and help them to develop healthy ways of coping with it. Here are some tips, according to the association:

Recognize the symptoms: Don't ignore the signs - irritability, anger, excessive worry, sleeping difficulties, eating too much or eating too little. These are all common signs of stress in children and teens.

Keep the lines of communication open: Spend one-on-one time each week with your teen, the association recommends. "During this time avoid speech designed to improve him or her but instead use it as an opportunity for shared decision making," the association says.

Teach healthy ways to handle stress: Encourage physical activity they enjoy, such as yoga, hiking, biking, dancing, walking or swimming. Parents also should take part in these physical activities and set a positive example.

Make sure they get enough sleep: Teens need about eight to 10 hours of sleep a night. But, stress can lead to poor sleep habits. And exhaustion can make stress worse. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep.

Create a safe harbor: Create family rituals - from seasonal celebrations to weekly movie nights to daily meals. They provide a sense of security, according to the association. They also give family members a chance to connect.

Model healthy behaviors: The kids are watching. Parents should model the behaviors they want their kids to follow - eating healthy food, getting exercise, getting enough sleep and managing their own stress.

Get help: In some cases, it might be best for families to turn to psychologists, who can help teens change their behaviors and learn better tools to manage stress.

The Poe Center notes another promising way that teens can manage stress and alter binge drinking: practicing mindfulness.

"Practicing mindfulness involves being purposely aware of the present moment," Wheeler writes. "The person becomes more aware of their environment and how he or she reacts to changes in the environment."

One study found that college students' alcohol cravings decreased within two months after mindfulness intervention, Wheeler writes. The mindfulness training reduced the student's association with heavy alcohol use and stress reduction. They also felt more in control of their choices.

UNC School of Medicine's Program on Integrative Medicine has a four-day mindfulness program for teens coming up next month.

"When we provide young people the opportunity to practice stress management skills," Wheeler writes, "we, in turn, fortify them with protective factors to prevent risky substance use."

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