The Effects of Drugs on Adolescent Brains

It is National Recovery Month, a time to reflect on the roots of substance use disorders. Adolescents experimenting with drugs and alcohol might seem unstoppable judging by the numbers. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 10% of 12-year-olds, 50% of 15-year-olds, and 70% of 18-year-olds have tried alcohol. Half of all 18-year-olds have tried other illegal drugs.

A young person’s developing brain may be physically altered for life by drug use. The learned cycle of use-reward-crash also could sow the seeds for addiction later in life. Harm from drug use and patterns of abuse are, however, often are preventable if parents and adults communicate clearly about consequences and strive to delay the adolescent impulse to experiment.

Mixed Messages

Peter Lane, DO, medical director of the UAB Addiction Recovery Program (ARP), says that sending mixed messages or no messages about drug use is a strategy aimed at adult minds, yet we are not dealing with adult minds. Teens are thus more likely to use drugs in a dangerous way and are more likely to engage in dangerous activities alongside drug use.

“Our brains are still developing until age 26,” Dr. Lane says. “In teens, the frontal cortex is especially undeveloped — the area of the brain that plans ahead, takes precautions, and develops reward patterns that determine what we pursue to feel good.”

ARP Director Bronwyn McInturff, MSW, LICSW, says many well-meaning parents either fail to communicate at all about drugs and alcohol or mistakenly think they can determine the way their children will use drugs socially by making them available at home “safely.” Adolescents are hypersensitive to the pleasure they get from drug use, no matter the context. According to McInturff, the earlier an adolescent is exposed to drugs, the more likely addiction is later in life. In fact, children who start drinking before age 15 are six times more likely to develop dependence compared to a 21-year-old, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Damaging Effects

Drugs and alcohol flood the brain with unusual amounts of neurotransmitters — signals that tell you what you feel — that weaken its ability over time to feel pleasure naturally. Drugs also favor the more animalistic part of the brain called the amygdala — which stimulates anxiety, irritability, and unease — rather than the more rational frontal cortex. “Drug use creates challenges for developing into a balanced and happy adult from the start,” Dr. Lane says.

There really is not a safe drug for adolescents. According to a research report from the National Institutes of Health, available studies show that long-term marijuana usage lowers brain performance, and that effect is increased by starting use at an earlier age. Dr. Lane notes that opiates and alcohol may shrink the size of the hippocampus, a part of the brain important for learning and memory functions.

Some serious long-term consequences of adolescent drug and alcohol include:

  • Poor academic performance
  • Psychosocial problems (forming relationships with others, having a healthy self-concept)
  • Neurocognitive deficits (trouble remembering, interacting with others)
  • Increased likelihood of developing a substance use disorder

Age of Exposure

McInturff has observed in her practice that addiction, like recovery, happens in a community. There is a strong genetic component to addiction, she says, but there are always environmental factors that determine initiation of use and outcomes, including:

  • Socioeconomic factors
  • Home life
  • The presence of parents and adult role models
  • Peers
  • Available activities and outlets
  • Access to drugs

McInturff suggests that parents and adult loved ones establish themselves as safe places for information before children’s peer groups fill the ignorance void.

“You cannot simply be there as an enforcer after they make a mistake,” McInturff says. “Instead, you need to be a source of wisdom, experience, and honesty before they make the choice,” adding that many adolescents start becoming aware of drug use around age 11-12, by way of older friends and their siblings.

Steer adolescents away from drugs with these tactics:

  • Do not leave alcohol, pills, or tobacco and smoking products (especially vaping devices) in accessible places.
  • Keep kids involved in physical activity and other sources of enjoyment or self-esteem.
  • Monitor your children’s friend groups and limit their time with older, more rebellious teens.
  • Stay engaged with the parents of your child’s friends and share information.
  • Address any behavioral or emotional issues — which could translate later into drug use — as soon as possible.
  • Provide a clear idea of consequences for drug use, and explain them.

What Next?

“Every day that your teen chooses not to use is a victory, but if they drink one weekend, it does not make you a both failures — you have to be realistic,” McInturff says. “That means paying attention to the signs of drug use and also not overreacting toward yourself or your teen if they slip.”

Addiction in adolescence can be difficult to diagnose, but it is possible. If you are losing ground in the effort to delay your child’s drug use, you may need professional help.

“Your messaging at home about drugs needs to be consistent, but harsh discipline can often backfire,” McInturff says. That is one reason that the American Academy of Pediatrics cautions against home drug tests: the breach of trust between parent and child. The group recommends that screening and testing be carried out by a physician or professional and accompanied by clear and honest communication. You can start by talking to your primary care physician and explore reasons for your child’s increased drug use.

Remember, parents can be the most influential force in steering children away from drug use — a responsibility their brains are simply not equipped to handle.

Click here to learn more about the UAB Addiction Recovery Program.

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