What You Need to Know About Drugs, Drinking, and the Teenage Brain

What You Need to Know About Drugs, Drinking, and the Teenage Brain

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by Robyn Brickel of Brickel & Associates. Posted with express permission by Robyn Brickel.


Adolescence awakens new emotions, social experiences and physical energy for many people. It’s often a time when young people try new things, make new friends, depend less on parents, and live more passionately.

But as an adult, your role is still important.  You can have a positive impact on helping your loved ones avoid the dangers of teen substance use.

Adolescence is also a time when some explore alcohol or drugs (such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and prescription medicine, among other substances). All too often, tragic events follow.

How can we help more teens and families avoid or repair the damage and danger of substance abuse?

Knowing more about adolescent development will help us better understand their needs and respond more effectively.

Adolescence Lasts Much Longer Than Most People Realize

Adolescence starts at about age 11 in girls, 12½ in boys, and continues into a person’s mid-twenties. The brain changes dramatically during this time and does not fully develop until age 27.

Brain remodeling refers to the process of physical and neurological transformation. The body creates more neurons than it needs in childhood. The unneeded ones die off naturally — a process of synaptic pruning.

A performance-enhancing myelin sheath allows energy to flow up to 3000 times faster along the brain’s circuits. The brain becomes more specialized, efficient and more integrated.

New Thoughts, Feelings and Vulnerabilities Emerge

New ways of thinking, feeling and behaving appear — sometimes dramatically — during this time.

Four qualities emerge with adolescence: “Novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity and creative exploration,” says Daniel Siegel in his book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. These qualities inspire many young people to do amazing and wonderful things. However, without the guidance of compassionate adults, these drives can also misguide some teens toward dangerous, high-risk, even deadly behavior.

How vulnerable are adolescents to risky and dangerous substance use behaviors? The numbers are staggering. While they do not predict the risk for any one person, they point to the need to be more aware of the facts:

  1. One in five youth between the ages of 12 and 17 in the US have an abusive/dependent or problematic use of illicit drugs or alcohol
  2. Alcohol poisoning and related incidents cause 4,358 deaths each year for youth under age 21, and lead to emergency-room injuries for another 190,000 people in this age group each year (NIAA, Underage Drinking)
  3. Over 27% of 8th, 10th and 12th graders in the US report past-year use of an illicit drug other than alcohol (NIDA DrugFacts, December 2014)
  4. After marijuana, prescription and over the counter medications account for most illegal drug use by 12th graders in 2013
  5. Underage drinking accounts for 11% of all alcohol consumed in the US, 90% of which is consumed in binge drinking (CDC Fact Sheets – Underage Drinking)
  6. Youth who drink or use drugs are more likely to become victims of sexual or physical assault
  7. The average onset of first use of drugs or alcohol for boys is 12, for girls it is 12½
  8. For those who began consuming alcohol by age 15, 47% experienced alcohol dependence later in life, compared to 9% who began at age 21 or older (NCADD FAQ)

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DBT: Crucial for Families Too

DBT: Crucial for Families Too

Posted by PotomacPathways, With 0 Comments, Category: Featured, News, Uncategorized,

Family therapy is a crucial component for young adults and teens as they move through the treatment process here at Potomac Pathways.  Often times as one person in a family system makes changes there is a direct effect on the relationships and interactions within their living environment.  Rebuilding trust and connection within a family is hard work and providing a safe environment to have these difficult conversations is key to learning the necessary skills to improve on those relationships.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a training with Alan Fruzzetti, Ph.D. specifically on using the DBT model to help families work together to achieve treatment goals.  Throughout the training it was so clear to me how applicable DBT can be not only for our clients, but also for families. Alan discussed the importance of the transaction that takes place in relationships; and two major components that contribute to dysfunction within relationships are inaccurate expression and an invalidating response.  It can be difficult at times to express what we think and how we feel when our emotions are intense and overpowering, and in these moments, it is hard to be attentive to the relationships we have with others. We each have the responsibility to work on being more accurate with our words and expressions; and it is also true that being validated in these difficult moments can help us along the way to accurate expression.

One of our main goals for treatment is centered around helping families learn specific DBT skills to manage intense emotions (by using distress tolerance and emotion regulation skills), to better articulate their thoughts and concerns in a non-judgmental way (by using mindfulness and interpersonal effectiveness skills) in order to improve communication while also teaching validation skills to maintain connection.  Being able to utilize mindfulness when talking means being in a moment with someone else and focusing on both what they are saying and how we are sharing our own thoughts. By utilizing language to observe and describe our own experience, we are able to move ourselves away from our own judgments to a more objective perspective which ultimately helps us to become clearer in our expressions. When this occurs not only do we have an opportunity to feel more confident in our own expression, but we also have an opportunity to strengthen our relationship with others.  When we are mindful in a moment, and truly hear what others are saying we have the ability to see the situation from their perspective, which allows us to be more understanding and validating. As clients and families commit to making changes, we as a treatment program work to provide you with skills that will make the journey worthwhile.

Erin Reddinger, LMSW has a Master's degree in Social Work from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She has worked with families and adolescents for several years, and has  provided therapy in a variety of settings including in-home, residential, and day treatment programs. Prior to joining Potomac Pathways Erin worked in a residential setting for at-risk youth and their families utilizing DBT as the primary mode of treatment. Erin has training in Functional Family Therapy, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Erin is originally from Western New York and enjoys spending time visiting family and friends, exploring the DC area, walking her dog, reading, and traveling.



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Take a recovery break to start your summer!

Take a recovery break to start your summer!

Posted by PotomacPathways, With 0 Comments, Category: Featured, News, Uncategorized,

That's right people! Our second annual trip down to North Captiva Island, in the Gulf, off the coast from Ft. Myers, Florida. Again this year, we have our own house on the beach. Our house has it's own pool and hot tub. Is that a good thing? Hmmm.... You betchya! But we'll be spending most of our time on the beach, parasailing etc. A great way to boost your recovery and have one heckuva great time! Click here for more info!

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Peer mentors are our secret weapon!

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Most outpatient programs have a boring social worker right out of grad school, passing out worksheets to teens sitting in plastic chairs under fluorescent lights. Potomac Pathways has a warm, inviting atmosphere-- and-- we have peer mentors. What's a peer mentor? A young person who has been living at home successfully, clean and sober, who is ultra-cool, and takes part in our groups and programs. The peer mentors model for the clients how to participate enthusiastically, how to address all of the issues related to getting clean and staying clean while still living at home, and how to move on to a productive and positive life! Meet one of our stellar peer mentors: Spencer Brothers!

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