How Do Drugs Affect the Brain of a Teenager?
Contrary to what teenagers themselves may believe, their brains as well as their bodies still have plenty of growing up to do. The brain is probably the last part of human physiology to reach full maturity, not considered completely “adult” until about age 25.
So while younger drug users may be more resilient overall, and may have more time to recover from drug-induced damage than the fiftysomething painkiller addict, there are other special risks. An organ—such as the brain—still under development may never be able to recover from damage that interrupts the natural process.
How do drugs affect the brain of a teenager in particular?
HOW DRUGS AFFECT THE BRAIN IN GENERAL
Aside from antibiotics and other medications that directly attack abnormal substances in the body, drugs work by chemically altering the brain’s natural perception of physical and emotional sensations. Effects may include:
- Reduction of physical pain
- Heavy drowsiness
- Stabilizing of mood swings
- Intense euphoria
- Powerful boosts in confidence
- Inability to relax or sleep
- Increased or decreased ability to concentrate
When drugs are prescribed by a doctor, the recommended amount is carefully calculated to maximize beneficial effects and minimize harmful ones. If someone takes too much of a drug for too long, however, the brain may become dependent on it to feel normal. Addiction is the result: when deprived of the substance, the brain activates “illness” reactions that cause various emotional and physical symptoms. These may include:
- Severe depression
- Paranoid delusions
- Violent behavior
- Nausea and vomiting
- Seizures or even death
Exact symptoms depend on the specific drug, among other factors.
Finally, overuse of any drug can lead to permanent brain damage, either cumulative or suddenly induced by an overdose. Potential long-term dangers include memory problems, attention deficits, emotional disorders, lack of self-control, relationship difficulties, poor coordination and inability to make decisions or process information.
THE TEENAGER’S BRAIN AND DRUG USE
Apart from medications prescribed for work- or age-related problems, most drug addictions start before age 20. Growth of the brain’s prefrontal cortex in particular is “pruned back” during adolescence. And since the prefrontal cortex is in charge of sound decision-making, teenagers are naturally impulsive and frequently reckless.
And it’s not just that this recklessness makes them more prone to experiment with recreational drugs in the first place. The brain of a teenager is physically more vulnerable to becoming addicted than the brain of someone just a few years older, because the adolescent brain is at a stage of internalizing “adult” habits and is particularly vulnerable to outside influence. If it “learns” through experience that regular drug use is normal, the pull to use drugs regularly may remain for life.
Unfortunately, adolescent risk-taking tendencies and susceptibility to peer pressure are so powerful that as many as three in four high school students will try potentially addictive substances at least once.
HOW TO STOP AND SPOT TEENAGE DRUG USE
If you’re the parent of a teenager and worried about addiction and its effects on the brain, don’t fall into the common trap of just laying down the law of “You’ll be in big trouble if I ever catch you with drugs, and that’s that.” Or of rummaging, uninvited, through possessions and computer accounts for signs of possible trouble. These approaches generate distrust and resentment that may actually increase the chances a teenager will use drugs, and will definitely decrease the chances he’ll seek your support if tempted.
The best approach is to head off possible drug use by engaging in regular discussions about the dangers: two-sided discussions, where you listen to and learn from your teenager as well as the reverse. However, drug use (and its negative effects on the brain) may already be in process if:
- Your teenager seems unusually moody or defensive for long periods
- Your teenager becomes secretive and seems afraid to open up to you
- Your teenager loses interest in old friends, hobbies or schoolwork
- Negativity and rebellion appear where there was none before
Don’t dismiss these as normal teenage angst: even if they aren’t connected to drug use, they usually indicate some problem you need to talk about. Approach with caution, especially if your relationship was already tense or you think your own example may have given the impression “a drink/pill makes problems go away.” If your teenager refuses to answer your initial questions, arranging for a family therapy session is better than demanding or nagging for explanations on your own.
If your child does in fact have a drug-use problem, don’t let fear or pride keep your family from proper addiction treatment and long-term counseling. As with most illnesses, the sooner addiction is treated, the less opportunity it has to do permanent damage to brain or body.
ADDICTION TREATMENT AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT POSSIBLE BRAIN DAMAGE
Due to possibilities of doubly reckless behavior or serious illness, every addiction is best treated in a medical center specifically qualified and licensed for the purpose. Look for a provider that works with adolescents specifically, because addiction treatment for teenagers comes with certain special needs:
- Therapy from a licensed counselor with specific understanding of teenage brain development and teen-specific concerns, including possibilities that the teenager has been a victim of abuse.
- Open and ongoing communications between treatment professionals and parents/guardians throughout treatment. (If parental abuse or unfitness is suspected and the patient is a minor, the legal system will appoint a guardian.)
- Full involvement of the family in long-term counseling and planning (a good idea in any case of addiction, but vital when someone will be returning to the custody and guardianship of one or more family members).
- Evaluation for any brain damage that might impair the teenager’s ability to function as an adult in the near future.
If an evaluation does indicate possible impairment of brain functions, don’t panic. The effects of brain injury can often be mitigated or even reversed by learning new skills/habits, eating a healthy diet, otherwise maintaining good physical health, and practicing mindfulness exercises and general optimism. Ask your teenager’s treatment providers and regular doctor for specific advice.
Be prepared to offer all the help you can without either demanding too much of your teenager or, more likely, being so “helpful” that you become a permanent caretaker when one isn’t needed. Many parents tend toward “poor thing, I’ll take care of you forever” attitudes when their children have disabilities of any type, but, like “enabling” an addiction, this usually leads to worse problems down the road.
HOW TO KEEP THE BRAIN OF A TEENAGER HEALTHY
With or without ever using drugs, a teenager’s brain (like anyone else’s) functions best when well cared for. Let’s close this article with a few hints for exposing the adolescent brain to habits and influences that have positive effects. (As a bonus, these practices also build interests and self-confidence that make drugs less attractive.)
- Start thinking about long-term vocational ideas based on personal interests, favorite causes and talents/skills. (Parents: don’t get caught in the trap of trying to plan your kids’ education and future careers according to your No one’s ability to resist or recover from addiction is helped by that kind of stress.)
- Consider areas where plans for a future career can be started right now: classes, special projects, volunteer activities or part-time work.
- Exercise the brain with reading, brainteasers and puzzles. Don’t waste all available leisure time on passive screen-viewing activities.
- Exercise the “laugh muscles” daily with a good dose of healthy humor.
- Spend time with supportive family and friends.
- Learn to believe in your own unique individuality, rather than worrying about being just like “everyone else.”
- Minimize multitasking (try keeping the smartphone in the pocket while walking to class and while talking to someone who’s there in the flesh).
- Get up for a break after every hour or so of study/homework: it clears the brain for the next wave. And study a little every day rather than doing one big cram the night before an exam.
- Learn to manage anxiety: fretting hurts brain, body and overall effectiveness. (One hint: don’t spend too much time on social media finding new ideas for things to worry about.)
- Maintain good overall physical health: body condition influences brain condition. (The final three bullet points cover specific areas of physical health.)
- Eat healthy. The brain functions best when protein and blood sugar levels are kept fairly constant throughout the day, so go ahead and enjoy between-meal snacks. Just make sure they’re small and nutritious.
- Stay physically active. Put that teenage risk-taking tendency to good use via service trips, wilderness outings and sports. (Just remember the proper safety equipment: a blow on a helmetless head is not good for the brain.)
- Get enough sleep. (Parents: quit nagging teens about “staying in bed too long.” They really do need different and longer hours of sleep than you do.)
While drugs can affect the brain of a teenager in all sorts of negative ways, teens also have incredible potential, including potential to influence their peers and perhaps future generations away from drugs. Don’t just tell them that “drugs will rot your brain.” Help them channel their brains’ natural inquisitiveness and originality toward healthy non-drug uses!
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For further information on youth, drugs and the brain, see the following articles: