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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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