Teens and Alcohol and Drug Abuse


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Q. I am a parent of an adolescent and am concerned about the array of drugs and alcohol available to our youth. What long-term affects and issues does this problem present to our community?

A: There is a general consensus that we are witnessing an epidemic of alcohol and prescription and illicit drug use in this country. Of particular concern is the growing use of alcohol and drugs by young people. The concerns are twofold.

First of all, there has been extensive research on human brain development, and it is now recognized that the brain does not fully develop until one is in his or her 20s. Although female brains have not fully developed until around age 21 to 22, male brains may not reach full development until age 30.

If an adolescent begins using a chemical regularly while his or her brain is still growing, how may this affect brain development? Is damage occurring? Does the drug use alter the brain's development irreparably?

The second area of concern is that certain parts of the brain help resist internal drives and social pressures to use alcohol and drugs, and those cognitive skills are still developing in teens and young adults. These include areas responsible for abstract thought, impulse control and decision-making. There are ways that parents can address these concerns and help their child make good decisions.

When it comes to abstract thought, the term "narcissistic egocentrism" refers to the adolescent's inability to fully comprehend thoughts in an abstract manner, particularly as it relates to himself. He or she believes that they are special, unique or "it won't happen to me." One way parents can address this vulnerability is to make rules and consequences clear. By ensuring that the rules and consequences for breaking them are simple, it greatly reduces confusion or misinterpretation.

Another chemical change in the life of the early adolescent's brain involves dopamine. There is an abrupt drop in the responsiveness to dopamine receptors in the brains of early teens. The brain has difficulty generating its own internal novelty and, adolescents around age 12 or older begin searching out new and unusual experiences for the excitement and stimulation they generate.

This chain of events serves as a sort of "biological mandate" to get the adolescent out of the house. It is a normal and understandable behavior for the teen to seek novelty, but it becomes problematic if these new sources of stimulation become alcohol or drugs.

At this time, we are unclear about any permanent changes to the still-developing brain of adolescents who use alcohol or drugs. What is clear, though, is that over time, the brains of chronic alcohol and drug users do display permanent organic damage and irreparable chemical changes.

The importance for avoiding alcohol and drug abuse by the adolescent is apparent. I suggest we focus on introducing our young people to new ways of seeing and experiencing the world. We must seek to feed this hunger for novelty and stimulation in opportunities that excite, safely stimulate and leave the participant hungering for more. We should encourage more engagement with the outdoors and the natural world.

Introduce adolescents to a variety of new experiences and they might just discover a satisfying lifelong hobby or a fulfilling career. By understanding more clearly what is, or isn't, going on in the adolescent's brain, parents are better able to address his or her needs in ways that will promote curiosity, safety and health.

Ann Evans, MA, LCAS, is a licensed clinical addiction specialist at Cone Health – Behavioral Health Center in Greensboro. Please submit your questions to "Is My Kid OK?" by e-mailing sherri.mcmillen@mosescone.com.

Photo courtesy of Kriss Szkurlatowski, www.12frames.eu.

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