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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On connection, community, compassion.

On connection, community, compassion.

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

Our Director of Community Relations, Laura Silverman, sat down with Drew Powers of Sandstone Care, fellow community provider, as a guest on Sandstone's videocast. Laura talked about First Step and DBT programs at Potomac Pathways; the importance of early interventions for teens and young adults; how an inviting and welcoming environment can allow for greater healing; the value of collaborating with providers in the community; and about using her own lived experience and story to connect with families, providers, young people, and the work itself.

Click the image below to hear/listen/read the transcript of the videocast.


To connect with our admissions team, call 301-987-PATH (7284).

To access our online application, click the button below.


To connect with Laura Silverman, Director of Community Relations:
Email - [email protected]
Call or text - 301-799-5215.

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Nate Luongo, LCSW-C blogs about a recent weekend outdoor adventure…

Nate Luongo, LCSW-C blogs about a recent weekend outdoor adventure…

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

Outdoor experiences allow teens to unplug from the complex world that we live in and reconnect with nature. Once we are able to reconnect, we can take a step back and examine our lives in a different way. Taking our groups on outdoor adventure experiences allows our young people to return home with a different perspective on how to face challenges in their lives.

Preparation counts

Last month, the First Step group participated in a camping and outdoor adventure, co-hosted by Jason Drevenak, director of the North American Bushcraft School.  Jason, who recently starred in the Nat Geo Channel's Mygrations series, has been a long-time friend of Potomac Pathways, hosting our groups a couple of times a year over the past decade.

"What is Bushcraft? There are so many terms in use for what we mean by bushcraft.  Re-wilding is one of our favorites, but also survival, homesteading, and sustainable living.  We think of it as a journey towards a life of sustainability   We should know how to make and find food; we should be able to find water and shelter anywhere we go; we should be able to make the things we need even if we don’t always do it. These skills help us to understand the impact of our lives on others."- Jason Drevenak, Director of the North American Bushcraft School

During the week leading up to the camping trip the group discussed the importance of preparation in everyday life. Anxiety and stress are areas that some young people struggle with, and the group discussed how stress can decrease once they’re prepared for challenges that may arise in their lives. Our camping trip out to Jason’s proved to be a great metaphor for the need for planning and preparation. The group learned the importance of staying warm by packing the right gear and layering since the temperature dropped very low in the evening. Everyone packed accordingly and was prepared so that they could continue to be comfortable regardless of the weather. In addition, gathering around the campfire allowed the group members to open up more to one another, view and discuss their treatment goals in different ways, and allows the staff (i.e. therapists) the opportunity to intervene in real-time with our teenage and young adult clients.

Nature immersion

This trip helped the group build off of their successes in treatment by immersing ourselves in nature for two days. When we do these excursions, we are typically taking the group into a completely new environment that they have never experienced. This can sometimes be challenging for young people new to outdoor adventure.

With every outdoor adventure that we go on, we have a starting group session where everyone checks in on how they’re doing, address any issues that are concerning for them, and then each group member - including staff - set positive intentions for the experience. We set our intentions and then we practice becoming mindful of how we are doing accomplishing our intentions, individually, and collectively.

On the morning of our first full day, the group packed up our gear and carried it on a long day hike to the Devil’s Nose Mtn., near Hedgesville, WV..  We packed and brought most of our gear on the day hike as a way for our clients to practice preparedness. As a group, we recognized that we needed to be prepared in case one might need to be able to survive a night away from our campsite. Most hiking accidents happen to day hikers since they typically do not take the necessary precautions, such as letting others know where they’re going and when they expect to come back, packing enough water, and having extra food and first aid. At the top of Devil’s Nose, we held a group session.

Taking the lessons home

Jason taught our young people how to make fire by using both bow and hand drills. These activities may not seem applicable to everyday life, but have you ever seen the face of a young man when he’s able to make a fire with a stick? It’s pretty incredible. Having that sense of personal achievement opens up possibilities, including the possibility of becoming successful through one's own efforts, with the help and support of the adults in their life.

We learned how to make shelters in case of an emergency with heavy duty trash bags -- again, a skill that one does not really need living in the DC Metro area, but knowing how to survive and build your own shelter opens up a different world. Some of the group built and slept in a group shelter for the second evening. This experience helped participants work together to plan, problem solve, and execute the plan-- but this time, with a minimum of coaching by the staff.

Nathan Luongo, LCSW-C holds a Master's degree in Clinical Social Work from Columbia University in New York, NY and a Bachelor's degree in Social Work from Catholic University in Washington, DC. Prior to joining Potomac Pathways, he worked with at-risk families in Brooklyn, NY providing an array of evidenced-based interventions for adolescents and adults with substance use, PTSD, and mental health disorders. Nate has worked with a chronically mentally ill population in a number of community settings, addressing substance use and symptom management. After his playing career was cut short due to an injury, Nate served as an assistant football coach at Catholic University. Outside of work, Nate enjoys spending time with family, going to the beach, and playing sports.

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