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Understanding the Teen Brain

Issue 16

Why teens can get addicted easily

How many of us worry about the possibility of alcohol or some other drug use problem affecting a young person in our family?

If you are nodding your head “yes” to this question, you are not alone.

We can all help teens understand the impact of early substance use on their young brain and how dependence on a drug can happen very quickly.

Addiction is a brain disease, plain and simple.

This is how it works:

Many teens think they are invincible, that alcohol and drug problems will never happen to them.

What they need to understand is that their teenage brain is not fully developed until their mid 20s.

The brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for their emotional response and their prefrontal cortex, which regulates their impulse control and decision making, are still growing. It should come as no surprise when parents ask their teenager the age-old question, “What were you thinking?”

The answer is simple.

They weren’t thinking clearly because their brains are not fully developed so they don’t always have the ability to control impulsive behavior or make sound decisions.

Teenagers love to have fun.

Let’s face it, we all do.

All of us have a natural chemical in our brain called dopamine. It is released in the brain when something good happens to us. Dopamine helps us remember those things we enjoy in life: favorite foods, good friends, and those activities that make us feel good.

Dopamine also plays another role in the brain.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addictive drugs like alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana release dopamine, flooding the brain with the “feel good” chemical giving the false perception that something pleasurable has happened.

The brain records the memory and triggers the desire for more of the drug. After continued use, a person becomes more and more dependent on the drug. This can happen very quickly to teens due to the sensitivity of their still developing brain. When the drug is not readily available, the user experiences withdrawal that can include stress, anxiety, depression and physical symptoms of discomfort.

What can you do if you are concerned that a young person in your family may have an alcohol or drug problem?

First of all, remember that addiction is a disease centered in the brain.

Here are some suggestions for parents and caregivers to get help and support:

  • The disease of addiction can be genetically inherited. If the disease exists in your family tree, please share this with your teen as early as possible.
  • There are common signs to look for when teens start using substances: tiredness, change of mood, depression, anxiety, withdrawal from friends and family, loss of interest in things, and possible disruption in eating or sleep patterns.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a national helpline, a free 24/7 referral and information service and resources available for families. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Parents and caregivers also need help when a substance use disorder is affecting a teen in their life. The following is a list of free local organizations available to help those people supporting a loved one:

207-284-1844 / 800-498-1844

The Family Restored:

WSCA Addiction and Recovery Podcast Series

this column is sponsored by:
Be The Influence

Barbara Sullivan
Barbara Sullivan
Barbara Sullivan is a Prevention Specialist for FCD Prevention Works, a division of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. She has presented at professional conferences on the topic of alcoholism as a family disease. Prior, Barbara taught middle school ages in Maine for 25 years where she designed a substance abuse curriculum for grades 6-8.

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