Ask the Experts

Teens and Alcohol

A guide for parents whose teenagers with attention deficit disorder may be drinking during the holidays — and beyond.

A guide for parents whose teenagers with attention deficit disorder may be drinking during the holidays — and beyond.
A guide for parents whose teenagers with attention deficit disorder may be drinking during the holidays — and beyond.

As I sat down to write this article, I thought of families I’ve worked with over recent months. I remember the frantic call from a mother whose 15-year-old daughter, Jennifer, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and was found by police at a party, too drunk to talk.

Another family received a call from the police about their son, Billy, who was pulled over in his car because he had been weaving across the road. His blood alcohol was above the accepted level. His parents thought he was at a movie with friends.

Some of the stories are less dramatic. A son begins to lose motivation at school, and his grades drop. After talking with the school counselor, his parents discover that he has been hanging around with a group of kids known to drink heavily.

Many teens with ADHD have low self-esteem and limited social success, so some turn to drinking to be accepted, to fit in. We also know that some teens with ADHD are impulsive, and use poor judgment when they drink. These issues come into intense focus during the holidays, when life becomes a party and alcohol is the beverage of choice for many teens and adults.

Why Is the Use of Alcohol of Concern for Any Teen?

We know that the three leading causes of death in adolescents are homicide, suicide, and automobile accidents. And, sadly, with each cause, alcohol use is frequently involved, particularly with driving. How many times have you read in the paper about a group of high school students dying in a car crash? Blood tests often show that the driver was drunk.

Parents should know that stimulant medications often used to treat ADHD may intensify the effects of alcohol, as well as those of marijuana and cocaine. Some, not all, studies show that the amount of alcohol that would typically give a “buzz” to those who aren’t taking medication can result in inebriation in those who are.

Antidepressants may lead to the same condition. Another study shows that, when a person on a stimulant drinks alcohol, he “feels” more intoxicated than his alcohol blood level would suggest. We also know that drinking affects motivation and short-term memory, making academic success difficult. The changes are subtle, so parents should stay on top of their child’s schoolwork.

How do medication plus alcohol affect a teen’s ability to drive? Alcohol impairs skills needed to drive safely, specifically attention, memory, recognition, decision-making, and reaction times. When someone is given a stimulant medication along with alcohol, his or her driving performance may worsen.

Those teens with untreated ADHD have another problem: using, and perhaps abusing, alcohol to feel better about themselves. The daily frustrations, academic woes, and low self-esteem that come with untreated ADHD take a toll on emotional stability. That’s why untreated teens — and adults — are at risk for alcohol dependency. Statistical studies show that the likelihood of becoming alcohol- or drug-dependent is no greater for a person treated for ADHD than that for the general population. But there is an increased likelihood of becoming dependent if the condition is left untreated.

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