As parents, we are all concerned about the dangers of drug and alcohol use. Given all that is known, all the publicity, all the problems that teenagers are aware of, one wonders, why do teens use? The reasons, of course, are complex, and there is no single answer. The unique development of the teenage brain sheds some light. We now know that it takes about 25 years for the brain to fully develop and mature. During the teen years, the pathways for physical coordination, sensory processing, motivation, and emotions have been well formed. However, the prefrontal cortex, which controls judgment, is not yet fully in place. This leaves teenagers as highly emotional, preferring lots of physical activity, and seeking high excitement and low effort tasks (any of your kids enjoy video games, for example). With judgment not fully formed, teens like high risk behaviors that stimulate them, and often do not think of safety or long term consequences, rendering the teenage years as quite vulnerable. That leaves the door wide open for experimentation with mind altering substances.
Teens experiment with drugs and alcohol because it is fun (at least at first) and because it makes them feel good. In a later column, I’ll address the biochemistry of what makes them feel pleasure. Substance use is also used to deal with unpleasant feelings. Almost 60% of kids self- medicate issues concerning depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar, learning disabilities, and other psychological concerns. By numbing and distracting their feelings, they may experience temporary relief. However, as we know, the problems are not solved, but exacerbated by this tactic. Peer pressure, and peer acceptance is another factor for teens beginning to use. Striving for acceptance, or wanting to avoid being singled out, can often be a powerful influence, and wanting to be part of what is perceived as “the in crowd” can push someone to action. Today’s teenagers are experiencing a great amount of pressure, via social media and high expectations to achieve, and they often turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to relieve that pressure. For those who perceive themselves as falling short of expectations, in school performance, athletic performance, or other extra-curricular activities, substance use is often attempted to deal with feelings of low self-esteem. Alcohol and drug use can also be a misguided attempt to cope with life traumas, including loss, abuse, illness, and other serious family issues. Finally, there is a genetic component to substance use problems. If there is a family history of drug or alcohol dependence, teens must learn that their brains may be wired differently than others, and need to be even more cautious about the desire to experiment. Often knowing the risk factors is the first step to increasing awareness and developing a plan for recognizing and dealing with difficulties.
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Moe Gelbart, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Thelma McMillen Center