Warning Signs of Alcohol Use

November 4, 2008

Despite our best efforts, some teens will drink. Below are some common signs of underage drinking. While this list is not all-inclusive, and could also represent normal teenage growing pains, it is important to realize that there may be only very subtle signs at first. In a survey, 31 percent of kids who said they had been drunk in the past year had parents who said their kids were nondrinkers. Further, drinking sometimes begins in elementary school (often between 3-6 p.m.) when parents are unaware their child is into alcohol.

If you recognize several of the signs below, it could indicate that your child is using alcohol.

  • Mood swings, irritability, temper outbursts or defensiveness
  • Becoming verbally or physically abusive toward others
  • Staying in their room
  • Disobeying family rules
  • Staying out past curfew
  • Making excuses
  • Lying
  • Positive attitude toward alcohol use
  • Changes in friends, reluctance to talk about or have you meet new friends, reluctance to have you meet their friends’ parents
  • Has friends who drink alcohol or participate in other unlawful activities
  • Requests for frequent sleepovers away from home
  • “Nothing matters” attitude or a lack of interest in hobbies or activities (including family or religious activities) that were previously enjoyed
  • Problems in school such as poor attendance, a bad attitude toward teachers or schoolwork, not completing assignments or a drop in grades
  • Sloppy appearance or a decline in personal hygiene
  • Smelling alcohol on your child’s breath or finding alcohol, or items connected to alcohol use, in his or her room, car or backpack
  • Signs of drunkenness, including bloodshot eyes, slurred speech or lack of coordination; or signs of alcohol use when sober, such as mental problems, memory lapses or poor concentration.

If you suspect that your teen is drinking, take immediate action. Click here for tips on Taking Action to stop your teen from underage drinking. Without your intervention, he/she could develop a serious drinking problem which could harm his/her future. Disregarding your child’s alcohol use can lead to increased substance abuse later and possibly alcohol addiction.1

Note also that some teens are more at risk for problem drinking than others. Click here to find out if your child is more at risk.

By recognizing the warning signs of alcohol use, talking frankly with your child and taking action, you can help your teen give up alcohol use, protect his or her brain development, and reduce the risk of alcohol problems later in life. In addition, you will likely have a happier relationship with your child as you engage in bonding activities, establish boundaries with clear rules and consequences for underage drinking, and monitor his/her activities.

What Is Teen Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, or alcohol dependence, is a mal-adaptation of the brain’s pleasure-reward system to the presence of alcohol. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, this leads to a negative pattern of alcohol use, which may include needing more alcohol to get intoxicated (tolerance), difficulties that occur when the effects of alcohol wear off (withdrawal), using more alcohol or for longer periods of time than intended, and other life problems due to the use of alcohol. Because withdrawal can be intense and unpleasant, someone with dependence may continue to consume alcohol despite adverse consequences.

Five stages of alcohol use have been identified:2

  1. The first stage is described as access to alcohol. (In that stage, minimizing the risk factors that make a teenager more vulnerable to using alcohol are an important issue. Click here to learn more about risk factors.)
  2. The second stage of alcohol ranges from experimentation or occasional use to regular weekly use of alcohol.
  3. The third stage is characterized by an increased frequency of alcohol use and/or using alcohol on a regular basis. (This stage may also include the teenager stealing to get alcohol.)
  4. In the fourth stage of alcohol use, adolescents have established regular usage, have become preoccupied with getting intoxicated (“high”) and have developed problems in their social, educational, vocational or family life as a result of using the substance.
  5. The final and most serious fifth stage of alcoholism is defined by the youth only feeling normal when they are using alcohol. During this stage, risk-taking behaviors like stealing, engaging in physical fights or driving while intoxicated increase, and teens become most vulnerable to having suicidal thoughts.


  1. Foley, KL, Altman D, Durant R, Wolfson, M (2004) Adults’ approval and adolescents’ Alcohol Use. Journal of Adolescent Health, 34-345, e17.
  2. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders