Loneliness & Drinking: The Link Between Isolation and Teenage Alcohol Use


Whether you’re a teenager or the parent of one, you understand how tough the teenage years can be. In addition to juggling academic demands and social pressures, teens are figuring out who they are and what they want in life. No wonder many feel overwhelmed, isolated, or lonely as they struggle to find their place in the world. In a survey conducted by Mental Health America, over two-thirds of young people aged 11-17 reported feeling “stressed out” about loneliness.

Of course, everyone experiences these feelings from time to time, and learning to deal with them effectively is an essential part of becoming an adult. But what happens when loneliness and isolation lead teens down the dangerous path of self-medicating with alcohol? Keep reading to learn more about the connection between loneliness and drinking and how you can help a teen who’s taken that path.

Are young people more susceptible to loneliness?

Research shows that loneliness in adolescence is increasingly common. As teens’ bodies and minds develop, it’s not uncommon for them to feel misunderstood or disconnected from family members and friends. At the same time, however, this is a stage of development where social acceptance and peer relationships are particularly important to their happiness.

In recent years, social media has provided more connectivity for teens, but it also fuels feelings of isolation and inadequacy. For instance, a teen may feel left out if they see pictures of friends having fun without them or disconnected if their life doesn’t measure up to the curated posts they see online.

What’s the connection between loneliness and underage drinking?

When teens feel disconnected from their peers or lack meaningful relationships, they can feel empty, sad, or worthless. These heavy emotions may cause them to look for comfort in unhealthy ways, including underage drinking. Here are some factors that may lead a lonely teenager to consume alcohol:

  • They want to fit in: If a teen feels isolated from peers, they may try to gain acceptance or look cool by drinking alcohol, especially if underage drinking is encouraged or normalized by their social group.
  • They believe alcohol will relax them: There’s a misconception that alcohol is a social elixir, helping teens connect with others more easily. This perception may have particular appeal for socially isolated teenagers who struggle with anxiety or have difficulty making friends. In fact, underage drinking can actually increase feelings of anxiety or make a teen act impulsively with negative consequences.
  • They want to escape: Some teens think that alcohol’s numbing effect will provide relief from the negative feelings they’re experiencing. They don’t understand that underage drinking often exacerbates feelings of loneliness and isolation.

What are some healthy ways to combat loneliness?

Although teens may think alcohol is a quick way to make their worries disappear, nothing could be further from the truth. Combining loneliness and drinking can lead to worse problems – mental and physical health issues, academic struggles, legal troubles, and more. If you’re a teen struggling with loneliness and considering using alcohol as a coping mechanism, here are some better options:

  • Talk to someone: Although you may feel isolated, there are people who care about you and want to help. Reach out to your parents, a trusted friend, a teacher, or a guidance counselor.
  • Find like-minded friends: If you’re no longer feeling connected to your current social group, find a different one. Try a new club, athletic team, or volunteer group that aligns with your interests.
  • Try creative expression: Negative and positive feelings can be channeled into writing, art, music, or photography.
  • Seek professional help if necessary: If you’re feeling depressed or relying on alcohol to cope with your loneliness, don’t be afraid to ask for professional help. There are wonderful therapists and support groups who specifically help teens with mental health and substance use issues. Talk to your parents, a trusted teacher, or a mentor to help you find the best resources for your situation.

How can parents and friends help?

If you’re the parent or friend of a lonely teen who’s turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism, your compassionate and proactive support can be vital to their well-being. Here’s how to help:

  • Be observant: Signs of loneliness can be hard to spot, especially since it’s not unusual for teens to want to spend some time alone. Watch for mood swings, unusual sleep patterns, or sudden changes in behavior.
  • Promote open communication: Let your child (or friend) know they can talk about their feelings without judgment or fear of punishment. Be an active and empathetic listener so they feel heard and understood.
  • Encourage positive social interactions: Help the teen engage in hobbies or social activities that they enjoy and that give them a sense of purpose and belonging.
  • Model healthy coping strategies: Show teens how to use physical activity, creative expression, and mindfulness practices to cope with stress, anxiety, and difficult emotions. Adults who drink alcohol should model responsible drinking habits.
  • Seek professional help: Sometimes, a teen’s loneliness and drinking take them to a place where you can’t help them. A mental health professional can offer a safe space and the expertise to help them explore their feelings and develop healthier coping skills.

Find more tools on our website.

At Talk it Out NC, our mission is to help young people and their parents understand why alcohol and adolescence should never mix. Visit our website to learn more about the effects of underage drinking and to find resources for parents, educators, and teens. Whichever category you belong to, we have the tools you need to Start the Conversation about underage drinking today.