The Case of a Teen Who’s Become a High Functioning Alcoholic (HFA)
Teenagers seek — and rationally receive — more freedom to make their own decisions. As parents, we just hope we’ve taught them well enough to make good ones.
When a teen seems to have everything together, many parents tend to relax. They may not see certain challenges because their son our daughter is doing well in other areas. But we cannot afford to let our guard down, especially when it comes to alcoholism. Some responsible teens end up abusing alcohol, but because they handle their lives well, parents don’t see the signs. These teens fall into the category of “high-functioning alcoholics“, or HFAs.
Traits of High Functioning Alcoholic Teens
We tend to think of alcoholics as people who have trouble keeping jobs or spin out of control. But many people, teenagers included, may be abusing alcohol without the usual outward signs. Here are some common traits of high-functioning alcoholic teens:
1. They can succeed. They may keep their grades up and/or hold a job. Their success in school is probably important to them.
2. A HFA teen might be popular, with an active social life.
3. They feel and seem in control.
4. A lot of alcoholics feel they don’t have a problem (at least until they hit “rock bottom”). But the difference with HFAs is that the problem is difficult to see. An intelligent drinker may be able to conceal their drinking problem, at least for a while.
5. The addiction will catch up.
6. HFAs might be able to conceal their addiction for a while, but sooner or later, the heavy drinking will make that difficult do. They may have memory lapses. Their concentration and grades could drop. They might withdraw and isolate themselves to hide their drinking.
7. They need help.
8. Teens who are high-functioning alcoholics might be able to manage it for months or even years. They are able to keep up with their responsibilities and maintain relationships. However, this usually means they are in denial of their addiction, even as they go to extremes to fuel and conceal it.
Since they don’t fit the typical alcoholic stereotype, HFA teens are much less likely to get the help they need. Without help, they may go undiagnosed for a long period of time. Even when parents catch on, it may be extremely difficult to get them to cooperate with treatment.
Here are some practical suggestions.
STEP 1: Help your teen understand the negative consequences their drinking can have on themselves and the family. Be ready to provide not only factual observations, but the resulting feelings as well. It can help to prepare a list of how drinking affects you…and to work with the entire family to do the same.
STEP 2: Learn as much as you can about alcoholism.
STEP 3: Seek professional guidance, which may include counseling, planning an intervention, seeking help from a rehab center, or participating in programs like the Community Reinforcement and Family Training Model (CRAFT). CRAFT is especially helpful in building an awareness among members of the family about what to say to an alcoholic AND how to say it. The model teaches you how to stay safe around an alcohol problem and how to set boundaries. It also has been effective at getting teens into treatment.
STEP 4: Encourage addiction recovery and forming positive habits. Once the teen has accepted help and entered treatment, be a part of family therapy. Be a part of the treatment community. Consider the use of medications and be informed about treatments. Follow your teen’s treatment progression by communicating regularly with her/his case manager or counselor.
STEP 5: And as always, while it must be made clear that their behavior is harmful, you also need to show unconditional love and support. Addiction is a medical condition. Leave judgement and shame and guilt at the door. Open up to love, patience, and support. This kind of attitude can do wonders for a kid addressing the deeply rooted beliefs and values that compel drinking in the first place.