If you’re a parent concerned about the possibility that your teen may be becoming hooked on alcohol or drugs, one thing you must not do is treat them as a mini version of yourself. That’s because your teen’s brain is not a mini version of your own. Their brain is still developing and is different from an adult’s brain. The teenage brain can absorb new information and make neural connections much faster than you can. This makes your teen more inclined to try new things and take more risks than an adult with a settled brain. While this is a vital part of growing up, it does make teens more vulnerable to addictive behaviors than adults.
“The teenage brain is really in a unique developmental stage that is still very much under construction, and it has unique strengths … and weaknesses … Ironically, both play into this increased susceptibility to addiction.”
– Dr. Frances Jensen: Chair, Dept. of Neurology, Univ. of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine; Co‑Author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.
How the Brain Develops
The brain is the last bodily organ to fully mature. Brain maturation is not finished until the mid to late 20s. On average, this happens slightly faster in girls and young women than it does in boys and young men, though development varies for each individual. Among other things, what happens in this critical period may affect how intelligent a person eventually becomes. Research has shown that IQ can change during the teenage years.
Why Your Teen May be Drawn Towards Addictive Behaviors
Because your teen’s brain inspires experiential learning, your teen might experiment with behaviors that are undesirable. For instance, your teen may begin smoking cigarettes. The teen brain, as opposed to the adult brain, more rapidly generates circuits in the brain’s reward centers (such as the limbic system) as a response to the pleasure received from addictive substances. Because of this, it’s easier for teens to become addicted more quickly, and the addiction can take a stronger hold than it might with adults. It has been shown that adults who started smoking as teens find it much harder to quit than adults who began smoking later in life. The same is true for other kinds of drugs and for alcohol.
The Last Area of the Brain to Develop
When it comes to deciding to give in to the temptation of that first cigarette, joint, or drink, teens are at a neurological disadvantage. The frontal lobe of the brain includes an area called the prefrontal cortex, which deals with executive functioning – higher-order functions such as emotion, planning, reasoning, regulation, and self-control. The prefrontal cortex is the last area of the brain to develop fully and is still underdeveloped in teens.
Is My Teen Pre-Destined to Indulge in Addictive Behaviors?
What’s going on in your teen’s brain does not necessarily mean that they are preprogrammed to chase pleasure and always throw caution to the wind. Instead, you, as a parent, can help by understanding the brain differences between you and your teen. You need to sit down with your teen and explain the changes in neurological development they’re going through, and why this puts them at risk when it comes to alcohol and drugs. You need to tap into the full potential of your adult brain and speak clearly and accurately about the dangers of addiction, including the risks for overdosing and impaired driving. Be authoritative but also warm. While setting clear limits, boundaries and expectations, meet your teen where they’re at developmentally. Don’t just condemn them for doing things you don’t understand.
Sometimes it’s challenging to handle teen problems on your own and your adult brain may feel greatly overtaxed. The trained counselors at Doorways understand the ways a teen’s brain development affects their behavior. If you would like to get a deep understanding of how we can help your teen, contact us to schedule a free consultation.