Teens’ Desire to Belong May Lead to Alcohol Abuse

Adolescence is a confusing period of emotional highs and lows. These are years when kids are, for the first time, experiencing an identity separate from that of their parents and home. Whether it is the freedom of driving a car or having their own job or even their first romantic relationship, teens are figuring out how to be their own person.

Along with those highs come the intimidating lows. Teens are still unsure of themselves and their ability to meet life on their own two feet. The fact that their body is undergoing rapid change just makes the sense of instability and insecurity greater. For many teens, right along with the fun of stepping forward into adulthood, comes a hefty amount of anxiety.

It’s at this point that teens tend to look side to side to see how their friends and peers are handling things rather than behind to receive further instruction from mom and dad. The intense pressure to mimic the crowd in order to avoid public failure is incredibly strong. Of course, peer pressure is not solely negative as is commonly assumed. The attitudes and actions of the group which accepts the teen can lead him or her either positively or negatively.

A peer group can affect all kinds of choices, from studying and church attendance to music or drug and alcohol use. Peer pressure may be overt, as in mocking those who abstain from wrong behavior like drinking or those who engage in more positive behavior like studying. But often peer pressure is more silent and passive. If a teen looks up to a peer who drinks, especially an older teenager, they may decide that drinking is the best way to fit in.

Much of the time teens may assume that more teens are drinking than is actually the case.  Studies show that teens regularly overestimate the number of their peers who engage in wrong or risky behaviors like drinking. Still, if a teen senses that drinking is what will help him or her better fit in with others, the pressure to conform is great.

Sometimes it happens that teens feel so stressed and socially insecure that they will drink just to relax and feel comfortable around others. Alcohol is commonly misrepresented as making a person or event more fun. Entertainment and advertising contribute greatly to this perception. Teens are in flux physically, emotionally and socially and alcohol is sometimes viewed as either an escape from anxiety or else a tool to make themselves more acceptable.

Not every teen that spends time with drinking peers will cave in to real or perceived pressure to drink. Teens with a strong and healthy self-concept can often ignore the overt and unspoken pressures to do so. It is most often teens who struggle with a low self-concept that are easily led by others.

Even though teens are more focused on the cues they get from peers during adolescence, parents are not entirely without influence. Parents can choose to invite the teen’s friends over and get to know them. Moms and dads can be prepared with a menu of fun and positive activity suggestions. It is also worthwhile to maintain an ongoing discussion about alcohol use between the teen and parents. These discussions shouldn’t resemble lecturing but can include open-ended questions. There is nothing wrong with parents pointing out that underage drinking is illegal and carries heavy potential consequences.

The good news is that teens do eventually move beyond being so peer-conscious. As they become more comfortable with themselves and learn that they will be able to function on their own successfully they will rely less heavily on the pressures exerted by those around them.