As sad as it is to see a shabby old man lying prostrate on the park bench sleeping off his alcohol intake, a perpetually drunken teenager is an even more tragic site.
Alcoholism is addiction to alcohol, wherein a person has become dependent on alcohol in order to feel normal. This sort of dependency takes a while to develop, which is why we might expect to encounter it only amongst mature people. Sadly though heavy alcohol intake is often part of teenage culture, and excessive amounts of alcohol, even in the short term, do cause a chemical imbalance in the brain which can lead to alcohol dependency.
Even moderate amounts of alcohol affects chemicals in the body such as the gamma-aminobutyric acids, responsible for inhibiting impulsiveness, and glutamate, which stimulates the nervous system. Excessive drinking depletes the body of these chemicals, in the absence of which the body starts to crave alcohol.
Young bodies may be entirely unprepared for the sort of impact that early-age-onset drinking can create. If a teenager suddenly finds himself or herself in a peer group where alcohol consumption is the norm, they may suddenly bombard their system with excessive amounts of alcohol, even if they have never touched a drop of liquor up to that point, in order to gain respect or acceptance in the group. This can obviously be very damaging to their health.
Studies suggest that nearly 60% of young people who take up drinking, do so in order to feel more mature! Some will have seen their parents drinking, and will take up the habit to become like them. More often though nowadays young drinkers will either just be following the group or trying to emulate some other role model - a sporting hero, rock star or gang leader - for whom hard drinking is a fundamental part of their public persona.
Obviously image and advertising have a lot to do with early-age-onset drinking. Movies tend to portray tough guys as hard drinkers. The media portrays fun girls as party girls. And obviously the advertising companies behind alcoholic beverages work hard at associating alcohol consumption with popularity and success.
For this reason education can be a key factor in helping to restrain the level of alcohol abuse and alcoholism amongst young people. Input from the home and the school can help create a more balanced understanding of both the benefits and dangers of alcohol consumption.
Of course, for teenagers who are determined to resist the authority of home and school, educational programs of this kind can have the opposite affect of that intended, where teenagers will consider their drinking to be a sign of their independence from authority. Ironically of course, such rebellion really only shows a subservience to an alternative authority - namely, that of the advertising magnates who promote alcohol consumption.
As in the case of most undesirable teenage behavior, the peer group is generally the key. If your teenage son is part of a peer group that drinks, he will drink too. If he's part of strict religious group that never let a drop of alcohol pass their lips, you don't have to worry (about alcohol consumption, at any rate).
Of course there are numerous factors that can lead a young person to drink excessively, and not every teenager who drinks excessively is going to develop an alcohol dependency. Genetics will partially determine this, along with other various physical and psychological factors. But if there is one straightforward thing that a parent can do to divert a teenager who is on the path to alcoholism it is this: change his or her peer group. Send them to a different school. Have them move interstate to stay with your relatives. Send them on a long overseas trip.
Of course changing the immediate peer group will not always solve the problem, and depending on the age of the teenager, the parents may be powerless to make these sorts of decisions anyway. Remember though that regardless of what happens, while there is life there is always hope. Even long-term alcoholics find healing. And countless teenagers with drinking problems never turn into alcoholics.