Why Teenagers Engage in Heavy Drinking

In previous posts I have discussed alcohol use amongst teens and the connection between parents and teenage alcohol use.  In this post I thought I would look more specifically at heavy drinking amongst teenagers and some possible reasons for it.

This idea was prompted by a  recent study has linked parenting styles with heavy drinking amongst teenagers. Researchers at  the Bringham Young University surveyed  5,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 about their drinking habits and their relationship with their parents. Specifically, they examined parents’ levels of accountability – knowing where they spend their time and with whom – and the warmth they share with their kids. Here’s what they found:

  • The teens least prone to heavy drinking had parents who scored high on both accountability and warmth.
  • So-called “indulgent” parents, those low on accountability and high on warmth, nearly tripled the risk of their teen participating in heavy drinking.
  • “Strict” parents – high on accountability and low on warmth – more than doubled their teen’s risk of heavy drinking.

The researchers also noted that

  • Religious teens were significantly less likely to drink any alcohol.
  • Teens were more likely to have non-drinking friends if their parents scored high on warmth and accountability.


We have dealt in some detail elsewhere on this blog about the effect peers have on teenagers and their choices.  It is no different when it comes to drinking.  Research confirms that teenagers who spend time with peers who drink heavily are much more likely to engage in heavy drinking.  In fact several studies suggest that peer drinking behaviour may be  more influential than parental drinking behaviour.

Risk Taking

The adolescent brain is far from completely developed.   During teenage years it continues to establish important communication connections and further refines its function. Scientists believe that this  may help explain some of the behavior where teens seek out new and potentially dangerous situations. For some teens, thrill-seeking  includes experimenting with alcohol.

This increased propensity to take risks is further exacerbated by developmental factors.  As teens develop their thinking ability they will pass through a stage of being very self focused. During this period many teens think of themselves as invincible or as having such a certain destiny in life that nothing bad will happen to them until their destiny is fulfilled.


How people view alcohol and its effects also influences their drinking behavior. A teenager who expects drinking to be a pleasurable experience is more likely to drink than one who does not. An area of alcohol research is focusing on how expectancy influences drinking patterns from childhood through adolescence and into young adulthood.  In cultures where binge drinking is seen as a right of passage and an important positive aspect of socialising and belonging, teens have an optimistic expectation of the effects of drinking and hence increased risk of engaging in heavy binge drinking.

Hereditary Factors

Children of alcoholics are  4 times more likely to become alcoholics themselves than are children who have no close relatives with alcoholism.  Children of alcoholics (COAs) are more likely to begin drinking at a young age and to progress to drinking problems more quickly. The research demonstrates that this is due to both genetic and environmental factors. There is evidence to suggest physical predisposition to alcohol abuse that COAs are born with. But also growing up under the influence and social structures of an alcoholic parent has tangible effects that can increase risk of heavy drinking.

Personality Characteristics

Drinking at an early age has been linked to heavy alcohol use in teenage and adult life. Children who begin to drink at a very early age often share similar personality characteristics that make them more likely to start drinking. Young people who are disruptive, hyperactive, and aggressive—often referred to as having conduct problems or being antisocial—as well as those who are depressed, withdrawn, or anxious, may be at greatest risk for alcohol problems.

Understanding the reasons and risk factors that lead to heavy drinking enables adults who live or work with teens to be   pro-active in identifying teens at risk and taking steps to  mitigate against these risks.

NOTE: I also found this great online book full of interesting research about teenage alcohol abuse for those who might like to read more.

Image by Ninha Morandini
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Showing 2 comments
  • charley

    i honestly think that teenagers, under the watchful matured eye of an adult, should be allowed to drink. The dangers are just as bad as going painballing, or skydiving as a sixteen year old.
    like everything drinking should be done in moderation, and if your teenager understands this, and is able too drink responsibly then why not, when it comes too Christmas, or a special occasion which involves alcoholic drinking let them have the trust of an adult, and allow them too consume a glass or two of chamagne, or a drink of there/your choice.

    • Kytrooper

      You can’t get addicted to skydiving or paintballing very easily and have it consume all of your income and make you prone to anger easily and start abusing others. Stay AWAY from alchohol is my advice, it should be outlawed as the drug it is.

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