What Brain Science Says About Teens & Addiction
Teenagers are much more in the thrill-seeking, risk-taking, reward-focused part of the brain, while the thinking and learning part of the brain is essentially offline during that stage of development. And when you’re experimenting with drugs or alcohol, your brain’s getting a sort-of-reward without the balancing benefit of the rational brain – the part that controls impulses and thinks about consequences (which is essentially what prevents addiction). The teenage brain is particularly susceptible to addiction.
Addiction (in neuroscientific terms) is really about the inability of the frontal cortex (the logic and reasoning centre of the brain) to control the emotional brain. Which is the normal state of affairs in adolescence (while the brain’s still developing) – and that’s why we don’t just kick kids out of the home to go flatting at 15!
Our teens need us to be their frontal cortex for them – to help regulate their behaviour and therefore (in terms of alcohol use) prevent them from being trapped in the spiral of addiction.
Healthy Boundaries & Modelling
A lack of boundaries for teens provides a fertile ground for developing an addiction. It’s a balance, because you don’t want to be harsh and controlling (or they’ll go behind your back) – but you do need to provide your teen with reasonable limits in order to help them make healthy choices.
Kids are way less at risk if they’ve got parents who provide firm boundaries – but negotiate those boundaries with them: negotiating how many drinks they’ll have, what time they’ll be home, or what time you’ll pick them up. The risk for teenagers is parents being absent – saying, “Oh, well you’re 16, so you can have a couple of drinks, and you’ll be alright!” and leaving them to it.
But, to stick to the research, the No.1 risk-factor for a teen developing a problem with alcohol is if they’ve seen their parent abuse alcohol. If you’ve seen your parents drunk, then statistically you’ve got way more chance of developing a problem with alcohol than someone who hasn’t seen their parents drunk.
Being drunk is so normal in Kiwi culture. And by being drunk, I mean more than three or four drinks – not just having a couple in order to do karaoke! We tend to think it’s normal for Dad to come home intoxicated on a Friday night and fall asleep on the couch. Here in New Zealand, we don’t seem to think that’s shocking – but in the international literature, that is shocking!
According to the perspective held by most of the rest of the world, if you’ve seen your parent drunk, what you’ve actually seen is alcohol abuse. And children who’ve seen their parents’ abuse alcohol – those whose parents have modelled the idea that you don’t need any alcohol limits – are the No.1 risk group for becoming alcoholics.
What Alcohol Does to the Teenage Brain
Regular alcohol-use arrests the development of the brain and freezes it in that ‘offline’ phase. The brain-scan of a 50-year-old alcoholic is remarkably similar to the brain-scan of a teenager.
The teenage brain (as I mentioned earlier) is primed to be thrill-seeking and risk-taking, and an addict’s brain reflects that as well – it’s emotionally stunted. So, when a 16-year-old’s addicted to alcohol, it’s impossible for them to bring their rational, logical brain online to make better choices around drinking.
They might be perfectly capable of making good choices in other areas of their life, but as far as alcohol goes, they’re unable to access their rational brain.
The Risks for Teens in Experimenting with Alcohol
The research is clear: if people under the age of 18 drink more than one unit an hour (which is less than a standard drink, consumed over the space of an hour), the brain will be damaged. And in New Zealand, that’s the way most teens drink.
In Europe, the average number of drinks someone would have on an evening out would be three. In New Zealand, the average number is 13, which is well over a drink an hour!
The hippocampus is one of the parts of the brain that’s damaged when young people go over that one unit/hour threshold. It basically functions as the search engine for your memory – and the larger that part of your brain, the better your retention and recall of information, and the better you’ll do at school and exams. When underage people drink, it shrinks that part of the brain (and inhibits its growth) quite dramatically. The earlier you drink, the smaller the hippocampus.
In autopsies of the teenage brain, they can tell from the size of the hippocampus how old the teens were when they went past one unit of alcohol. So, if you want your kid to have a fully developed brain, you need to delay their introduction to alcohol until they’re 18-21.
The other part of the brain that’s clearly damaged when alcohol is consumed prior to the age of 18-to-21 is the frontal cortex, that home of higher intelligence. It’s not actually shrunken like the hippocampus when damaged, but it is compromised. These parts of the brain are critical to how successful you are – they have a lot to do with getting qualifications, regulating behaviour (so you don’t end up in prison), making healthy choices …
So, the whole idea that it’s okay for kids to drink is really just a poisonous, toxic concept. We’re damaging and limiting the potential of so many of our younger citizens because we allow the abuse of alcohol (in fact, it’s embedded into our culture) – and we allow alcohol companies to market directly to them.
Guiding Kids to Make Healthy Choices Around Alcohol
I’ve got a son who was very sports-focused. So he really regulated his drinking until he was 18 – because he understood that, in order to remain competitive (when a win might come down to fractions of seconds), he needed to have every advantage. He was disciplined and determined enough to make those choices for himself.
But not all kids are like that, so you have to know your child.
For many kids, it’s a matter of parents negotiating with them – you can’t necessarily expect that saying “don’t drink until you’re 21” will prevent your teen from consuming alcohol! You’re better off figuring out the details together by having regular conversations around the topic.
You might need to make some concessions, but what’s important is that together you come up with some healthy boundaries around alcohol. Also, if your son or daughter feels unsafe or compromised in any way, they know they can still ring you – because they’re making a plan with you and not just going behind your back.
And of course, model healthy drinking yourself!
If your kids see you have just a glass of wine after dinner, or you have friends over, and you have one or two glasses of wine, you haven’t abused alcohol. But don’t go beyond those two glasses. Model healthy habits for your kids.
NATHAN WALLIS HAS DEVELOPED A REPUTATION AS A LIVELY AND ENGAGING SPEAKER. HIS HUMOUR AND PLAIN LANGUAGE MAKE THE COMPLEX TOPIC OF NEUROSCIENCE BURST INTO LIFE! FIND HIM ON FACEBOOK AND LOOK FOR AN EVENT NEAR YOU …