The Adolescent Brain and Substance Abuse

The Adolescent Brain and Substance Abuse

When some parents discover that their child has been using alcohol or drugs, they brush it off as “inevitable” or assume that it’s okay for adolescents to experiment with substances. However, what many parents may not know is that any amount of “experimenting” can harm their child’s developing brain, sometimes creating irreversible damage.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which helps control impulsive behaviors and takes into consideration the benefit or risks associated with certain actions, is still developing through adolescence and well into the early 20s. This means that the adolescent brain lacks some rational thought and logical reasoning, so teens don’t realize how risky some things can be.

"The adolescent brain is different from that of an adult," National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Dr. Nora Volkow explains, "and that leads to behaviors that definitely put them at much greater risk to want to try drugs than the brain of an adult."

Heavy drug use during times of critical brain development may cause permanent changes in the way the brain works and responds to rewards and consequences, so it is imperative to address substance abuse as early as possible.

Alcohol can also cause changes in the brain, as well as lay the foundation for serious health problems later in life. Heavy drinking and alcoholism are more likely to occur when a parent or other close family member has a similar problem. If a family member has a history of alcohol dependence, a child’s risk of developing a problem with alcohol is four times higher than those who don’t have alcoholism in their family.

Other risk factors for substance abuse are co-occurring disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression or anxiety, and other mental health disorders. In addition, if an older child begins drinking or using drugs, younger siblings are more likely to do so as well.

Warning signs of alcohol or drug use include worsening grades, lack of interest in activities, noticeable weight loss or gain, injuries, and aggressive or withdrawn behavior.

If you notice any of these warning signs, talk to your child about his or her substance abuse and get the necessary treatment. It’s also important to talk to your child about drugs and alcohol before you notice anything wrong, as a simple chat could save them from going down the wrong path.

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