The Unique Risks of Teen Substance Use

We immunize. We require seat belts in the car and helmets while biking. We insist on sunscreen. We do everything we can to prep our kids for high academic performance. We do just about everything we can to ensure that our kids are healthy, safe and primed for success. So why when it comes to drinking alcohol or even smoking marijuana, are so many parents inclined to shrug it off as “a rite of passage” or “just experimenting?”

“It’s just a phase. He’ll grow out of it.”

While parents are aware of the inherent risks of their child or teen using drugs or alcohol – that is, that it can result in negative consequences like car accidents, personal injury and in some cases may even lead to addiction – the hope is for their own kids to sail through the teen and young adult years unscathed.

So what’s missing from this picture? Understanding brain architecture and the risks of substance use to brain development.

Everyone agrees that substance use has an impact on behaviors, but little is discussed with respect to the impact on the brain. In the same way we’ve come to recognize the negative consequences that a mother’s drinking or smoking can have on a developing fetus, research has progressed such that we now know there are distinct risks to teen brain development with substance use.

Consider the construction of a house as a metaphor for how the brain develops. First the foundation is poured, followed by framing, wiring and plumbing over the course of time. The brain develops in a similar way, with the foundation being laid in the early years before birth and into the early years of childhood. Adolescence is another time of rapid brain development where the brain’s framing and wiring become more efficient and the brain develops skills to focus, prioritize and problem-solve. The brain is not fully developed until a person’s mid-20’s, making it more vulnerable to the impact of drinking and drug use.

Alcohol and other drugs can damage the brain’s wiring, increasing the likelihood of learning difficulties and health problems in adulthood. Just as a house is still functional with a cracked foundation and faulty wiring, so is the human brain, but neither is optimal.

For some teens, this can show up as anxiety or depression later in life, a lower GPA than expected, taking longer to finish school or dropping out altogether in high school or college. Teens who are more vulnerable to “faulty wiring,” typically have certain risk factors which make them more likely to develop a substance use disorder. These risk factors include:

  • Family history of problems related to substance use
  • Underlying mental health problems
  • Trauma
  • Bullying
  • Impulse control problems
Marybeth Hicks

"Our job as parents is to share our wisdom – not necessarily all of our experiences. Some of the things I did growing up aren't healthy for my kids, and I wouldn’t want them to repeat my mistakes."

Marybeth Hicks, mother of 4

So what can you do, especially in a culture where drinking and drug use is so common?

  • Encourage your teen to delay, delay, delay when it comes drug and alcohol use.
  • Assist your son or daughter in engaging in healthy activities and social circles.
  • Teens are going to take risks, push boundaries and make mistakes. Help them find healthy ways to try new things, push limits and fail.
  • Many parents believe that using drugs and drinking is normal experimentation. Help your teen develop strong coping skills for life’s stressors.
  • Model healthy behaviors. After a stressful day, instead of reaching for a glass of wine or beer, try going for a walk, deep breathing or other healthy relaxation techniques.
  • Acknowledge and positively reinforce decisions to not use drugs or alcohol.

If your child is “experimenting,” it’s time to start talking. Have a conversation about what he or she sees as the benefits of using alcohol or other drugs. Reasons for use often include thrill seeking, escaping boredom, social pressure to fit in, escape from problems or easing anxiety. Finding healthy alternatives that address her reasons and compete with substance use can move a teen in the direction of lowered use or abstinence.