Substance Abuse

How Do Drugs Affect the Brain of a Teenager?

We’ve heard and seen the analogies about teen brains and scrambled eggs. But what really happens when a teen takes drugs – and is it any different than if an adult uses them? 

To understand and answer that question, we need to differentiate psychoactive from non-psychoactive compounds, understand what really sets the brain of a 16-year-old apart from that of a 36-year-old, for instance, and isolate why teens are really at a higher risk of long-term drug use and addiction than their parents, or older generations. 

In this article, we take a closer look at one of the more common questions we hear from parents – how do drugs affect the brain of a teenager?

The Developing Teenage Brain

The age of majority in most states across the US is 18, but the human brain does not simply finish “cooking” the moment you wake up on your 18th birthday. In fact, estimates for brain maturity in matters of executive functioning and decision making lie around the age of 25, while emotional maturity – learning to manage your moods to the best of your neurological abilities – may take as long as your mid-thirties to peak. The human brain continues to mature and develop long after puberty, long after our bones have fused, and our bodies have hit their physical prime. 

For the context of addiction and drug use, understanding that it is specifically the part of the brain dedicated to executive functioning and motivation that hasn’t fully developed yet is important. This is the part of the brain that is ostensibly the most sensitive to addictive drugs, and it is the part of the brain where the neurological mechanism for addiction largely takes place. 

It is also the part of the brain that learns to assess risk. Teens are inherently less likely to think about the consequences of their actions, even if they possess all the cognitive faculties needed to think ahead for more than a few moments. 

It’s not just that they don’t care – their mind does not place as much importance on what happens tomorrow than the mind of someone substantially older. 

Practically speaking, this means that teens are simply more likely to consider using drugs even after knowing the risks, and that teens are more susceptible to the addictive nature of drugs

This helps corroborate studies that show that teens are more likely to struggle with addiction later in life, the earlier they’ve had first contact with an addictive drug. 

It’s important not to take these studies as proof for a single explanation for addiction in teens, however – other factors are also important. We can’t forget that mental health, financial stability, a healthy teen-parent relationship and strong community bonds are all relevant factors and predictors for a teen’s likelihood to struggle with addiction. 

Teens who start drinking much earlier, for example, are also more likely to have it worse at home than teens with happy families. Yet at least some of the blame can be placed on the way the teen brain works – and it’s one of the reasons we might want to discourage teens from experimentation. 

Drug Use and Teenage Mental Health

Teen mental health is another important factor, and one that unfortunately goes both ways. Teens that use drugs often are more likely to struggle with symptoms of poor mental health. Similarly, teens diagnosed with a mental disorder, such as anxiety or depression, are more likely to start using drugs. 

Among teens with existing mental health issues, certain drugs act as an appealing, yet maladaptive coping mechanism. Anxious teens might like the loss of inhibition they feel when drinking, despite the fact that alcohol makes anxiety symptoms worse in the long run. Teens with depression may still feel euphoric when using drugs, a sensation they haven’t otherwise been able to experience for months or years, in some cases. 

Meanwhile, drug use itself has a negative effect on cognition as well as mood and mental health. Long-term drug use contributes to depressive symptoms. It’s a dangerous cycle. Thankfully, the damage isn’t permanent – provided you seek teen addiction treatment

Preventing and Treating Drug Use in Teenagers

Prevention is better than a cure, and this is doubly true for addiction. While treatment rates have improved over the years, addiction is very difficult to recover from. Some people posit that it’s a lifetime struggle to stay sober – for others, even years after recovery, the memories of addiction remain a dark time. 

When teens are addicted, taking the long-term into consideration is important. Don’t be alarmed if your teen struggles to stay clean, or relapses. In many cases, it’s part of the process – learning to identify triggers and potential factors that contribute to an ongoing addiction risk and improving a teen’s coping skills. 

The Importance of Education

Many people have heard of the failures of DARE. But that doesn’t mean that teaching kids about drugs is a fool’s errand. The proper approach is needed – as well as the right context. 

Scaring kids into hating drugs doesn’t seem to work very well. 

Others recall that DARE programs were undermined by the fact that they would involve police officers holding long lectures that would exaggerate the effects of drug use and apply a no-tolerance policy to any form of drug abuse – despite the use of certain drugs as medication, the rampant alcoholism in the police force, and other clear hypocrisies that teens of the time (and teens today) were well aware of. 

Honesty is the best policy. If your teen’s school does not employ a successful addiction prevention program led by treatment specialists, then talking to a mental health professional about refining a few talking points of your own can be helpful. Don’t be tempted to make up stories, go into gory details, or be biased in your interpretations. Teens appreciate when adults are straight with them – and are more likely to resist if they feel patronized. 

Take inspiration from anti-drug campaigns that did work. Good examples include the campaigns Be Under Your Own Influence and Above the Influence, both of which frame sobriety as counter-culture, as well as the smarter thing to do. 

Your teen will continue to grow into adulthood, make their own choices, and live with their mistakes. If those mistakes include drug use, don’t panic – chances are that they might try a few things, as teens often do, and move on with their life. But if the habit sticks, then treatment is the next step – and an important one. 

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