From reckless driving to binge drinking, teens are more likely to engage in risky behavior. That’s because the frontal lobe of their brains, which controls impulses, reasoning and decision-making, is not fully developed until the mid-20s.
During the teen years, the brain is much more powerful than in adulthood because it has many more synapses or connections between brain cells. This is both good and bad.
On one hand, their brains are much more receptive to learning and positive experiences leave a lasting mark. On the other, negative experiences can also leave a strong impression.
“When the pleasure center of the teenage brain is repeatedly exposed to drugs or alcohol, it makes the teenager more prone to addiction,” said Dr. Jessica Castonguay, an adolescent medicine physician at Akron Children’s Hospital. “Addictions that start in the teenage years are much more difficult to beat because those pathways are more fully developed.”
When you combine impressionable synapses with poor judgment due to an undeveloped frontal lobe, it’s easy to see why teens are at risk for binge drinking, accidental injury and unprotected sex. Alcohol decreases inhibitions, further increasing the risks.
Dr. Castonguay also worries about how alcohol can affect the developing brain.
“Alcohol is a depressant, so it slows down how the brain functions,” she said. “The earlier a teen starts drinking, the more detrimental it may be to their brain development.”
There are a number of reasons why teens may experiment with alcohol. Some may drink to appear older. Others may use it to feel more comfortable with friends or because of peer pressure or low self-esteem.
Some teens may suffer from depression and use alcohol in an attempt to feel better.
Using science to discuss the risks of drinking
Studies have shown that binge drinking, substance abuse and stress tend to have a stronger effect on teens than on adults. That’s why it’s important that you keep the lines of communication open with your teen.
Teens value honesty and straight-talk so be sure to talk frankly about the consequences of drinking. Here are 5 key points to guide discussions with your teen:
- Your teen’s developing brain is more prone to addiction and the longer it goes on, the harder it will be to stop.
- Alcohol use is dangerous for their immediate health and well-being, as well as long-term health. It not only impacts their thinking and memory, binge drinking increases their risk of serious injury, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.
- Alcohol use is linked to mental illness, including depression.
- Underage drinking is illegal. The punishment, as well as repercussions for driving under the influence, can be quite severe.
- Family history increases the risk of addiction, so if any family member battles any type of addiction, your teen will be at even greater risk.
“The teenage brain is so susceptible to outside influences, such as drugs and alcohol, which will determine which connections stick and which get pruned away,” said Dr. Castonguay. “We want to ensure the brain is exposed to the right influences.”
During your discussion, strategize with your teen about how to respond to peer pressure to drink.
Let your teen know that he can call you at anytime if he wants to leave a party where alcohol is being consumed. Make sure he know he should never get behind the wheel if he’s been drinking or be a passenger with a driver who’s been drinking.