What you don’t know about teen alcohol and drug use

parenting teenagers Oct 19, 2021

How familiar are you with your teens alcohol and drug habits? Or perhaps they don’t touch them… I share why teens drink alcohol and take drugs, how it affects their brain and 10 steps to stop them using alcohol and drugs.

A few years ago now, I received a phone call from my teenage son that we all dread as parents: on the other end of the line and unable to form a coherent sentence,, my eldest son said, “Jack can’t stand up”, he said.  “Can you come and pick us up?” "We’ve had a couple of drinks, Just a couple…"

After arriving to pick them up and stuffing their bikes in my car, it became very apparent that they’d had a few more than “just a couple of drinks” After stopping every two minutes to let Jack throw up, we eventually arrived at Jack’s parent’s house, who I’d never met before.

I gave Jack a fireman’s lift to his front door, propped him up, steadied my son,  and rang the door bell. I was greeted by a very angry mum and dad, who said to my son. “Have you taken anything else?” To which he replied, ‘We had some Doritos …because we were hungry"  I apologised to the parents, and made a quick exit 

I am sure this sort of story is a familiar one to many of you with teenage children. By 15 more than 70% of teenagers have tried alcohol and the numbers keep on rising as they get older. Binge drinking - consuming at least 4 or 5 drinks in a 2 hour period - typically begins around thirteen and peaks between 18 and 22.

In fact, cannabis is outpacing alcohol as a public health problem in teenagers, being responsible for more 70% of admissions to rehabilitation centres. And cannabis is by far the most commonly used illicit drug with almost half of teenagers saying they have tried at least once.

In this post, I want to talk about why teens drink and take drugs, how it affects their brain and give you ten strategies to educate and support our teenagers about drinking and drugs.

Teenagers, who’s brains are still developing, are easily influenced by their immediate surroundings and environment including the habits and behaviours of those closest to them - their friends and family. For example, young teenagers who regularly watch films with scenes of people drinking alcohol are twice as likely as teenagers who don’t watch these films to drink alcohol and even to binge-drink

Teens also often admit that they use alcohol to diminish the awkwardness and insecurity that they feel in social situations. If teens expect they will meet up with peers on whom they have crushes or with whom they would like to “hook up,” they use alcohol to temporarily ease their anxiety and facilitate interaction. As time goes on, some adolescents can come to rely heavily on substances in social situations, creating a false perception that socialising without the crutch of a psychoactive substance is impossible.

Novelty seeking, poor judgement and risk taking are also partly to blame for teenage binge drinking, but there is is a social aspect to it as well. Studies have found that teenagers tend to base their drinking and drug taking on the amount they perceive their friends to be consuming. If your son’s best mate downs a six pack every night, chances are you son will too.

Even more worrying is that this study also found that teenagers tends to overestimate the amount of alcohol or drugs that other consume. Even if your son’s best mate is only drinking three beers, your son may perceive him as drinking a six-pack

Many teens report that “hook-ups” often occur under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. The combination of substances and teenage sexuality can lead to damaging experiences, both psychological and physical, that leave teens feeling uncomfortable and unsafe. Potentially traumatising experiences include engaging in unprotected sex; having cloudy, upsetting memories of important emotional events; and sexual assault. Indeed, the majority of sexual experiences that teen report to us in the work we do that are upsetting or regrettable involve alcohol.

One of the biggest risk factors for adolescents who drink and take drugs is a family history of alcohol and drug abuse. 50% of the risk of developing alcohol and drug dependence is genetically influenced. The environment you grow up in, however, counts for other 50%

Children, especially teenagers, model their behaviour on the adults who are most important to them, and with who they most frequently interact. Those who are monitored closely by their parents or guardians and who are given clear rules are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. A study of three hundred parents and teens found that parents who disapproved of underage drinking or drug taking tended to have teenagers who engaged in less binge drinking and cannabis smoking  when they got to college or university

Whereas, those parents who were less strict and more accepting of adolescent drinking and drug taking were more likely to have teenagers that engaged in heavy drinking and drug taking at college or university. On the other hand, parents who are open and willing to talk to their children about alcohol and drugs had a more positive influence on their subsequent drinking and drug taking behaviour.

So what are the effects of alcohol and cannabis on your teenager’s brain?

We can say with absolutely certainty that both alcohol and cannabis are harmful to your teenager’s developing and vulnerable brain

Let’s start with alcohol. Contrary to popular opinion, adolescent brains, compared to adult brains, are actually much better at handling the sedative aspects of drinking, including drowsiness, hangovers and lack of coordination. Alcohol doesn’t produce the same level of inhibition in their brain, which  means greater tolerance and more incentive for them to keep drinking

However, this tolerance for the immediate effects of drinking belies the long-term consequences and damage they are doing to their brain. Damage to cognitive, behavioural, and emotional functioning. Attention deficits, depression memory problems have all bee been linked to alcohol abuse in teenagers

The damage appears to be worse in girls because because their brains develop slightly earlier than boys. Alcohol shrinks the size and reduces the efficiency of their prefrontal cortex - the part responsible for rational thinking, emotional regulation and planning - and their hippocampus  - the part responsible for their learning and memory

And the earlier the use of alcohol in the teenage years -  and the longer the abuse - the smaller their hippocampus will be. Alcohol blocks glutamate receptors that are key for building new connections between neurons, and this explains why people who drink heavily have major memory problems

When alcohol consumption is moderate, you suffer what are called cocktail party memory problems the kind of memory loss where you forget someones name or part of a conversation.

When binge drinking results in a blackout - a period time when you can’t remember entire periods of time or events the damage to the hippocampus can be severe and stops the ability to make new long-term memories. About 50% of college and university teenagers say that have experienced blackouts. And alcohol damages memory much more readily in adolescents than in adults. Alcohol stops teenagers growing new neurons, and kills old neurons, in a process that is similar to having a seizure or stroke

So what about cannabis?

Well, cannabis is the only plant that contains a class of compounds called cannabinoids, including tetrahydrocannibinol (THC). One reason that THC has such a potent effect on us is that our brain make its  own cannabinoids  so we have natural cannabinoids receptors on neurons ready to receive the THC

THC is what produces the high, the lack of coordination by affecting the cerebellum, slurred speech and visual distortions by acting on sensory brain areas. and the sense of awe - colours are more beautiful, music is more profound, taste is more acute - by acting on part of the amygdala, where cannabinoid receptor are particularly high in number.

A critical issues for teenagers who consume cannabis is that THC disrupts the development of neural pathways and wiring, which are still being laid down ion the the teenage brain.This is much more harmful than in a fully formed adult brain.

Parents sometimes wonder why teenagers smoke cannabis to relax. Part of the answer is that the adolescent brain is much more active and vulnerable to stress, so it has an increased desire for relief, which teenagers often believe cannabis can provide.

The age at which a teenager starts using cannabis is the most important factor for potential brain damage. Younger teenagers are twice as likely to become addicted and those who take cannabis before sixteen have more trouble with focus and attention and make twice as many mistakes on tests involving planning and flexibility and abstract thinking. Memory is also impaired and memory loss lasts for longer in teenagers than in adults, in some cases for months or years

In terms of the consequences for mental illness, cannabis consumption in the teenage years doubles the risk of psychosis, schizophrenia and episodes of clinical depression later in life. This increased risk for mental illness all comes about because cannabis permanently changes the incomplete and vulnerable teenage brain

So, there is no doubt that alcohol and drugs are harmful to our teenage children’s brains, and that we as parents and their friends influence their relationship with alcohol and drugs.

Let’s finish up with 10 strategies to educate and support your teen about alcohol and drug use.

First, when you discuss alcohol and drugs, the risk and rewards of drinking and drug taking should be introduced slowly to children slowly. They’re impressionable and hungry for information. So if we give them the pros and cons of drinking and drug taking they can make good decisions about alcohol and drugs and that learning should take hold.

Second, be a responsible role model. You will influence your child’s attitudes about alcohol and drugs well before they have their first experience with them.

Third, talk openly and honestly about alcohol whenever your children start asking you questions about it – the reasons why you enjoy it (sociability, relaxation), the drawbacks (hangovers, sickness, bad skin) as well as the dangers and risks alcohol poses.

Fourth, make conversations about alcohol, drugs and safe choices part of the day-to-day rather than a one-off ‘big talk’.

Fifth, Talk with your teen about the hazards of prescription drug abuse. Not only is prescription drug abuse emotionally dangerous, it is a fast route to addiction and it is illegal. Support your teen in developing the confidence to do his best academically without the aid of prescription medication. Make sure you give positive attention to your teen at times other than simply around notable achievements or performance. Be very concerned if mood-altering prescription drugs are missing from your medicine cabinet. Closely monitor your teen’s prescription medications and access to them at home.

Sixth, be clear about the connections between drink and drugs, and their capacity to boost confidence and self-esteem. Help your daughter or son to strengthen their sense of wellbeing in healthier ways – exercise, sport, music, friends, encouragement etc.

Seventh, Talk to your teen about sex and why it should be a choice she or he makes when she or he is ready and that it will be private, intimate, safe, and consensual. Explain that alcohol and other drugs not only suppress or mask those qualities that make sex a positive experience, but also are highly likely to make a sexual encounter unsafe emotionally and physically.

Eighth, find out all you can about illegal drugs, their names, their effects, where people get hold of them so that you can be well informed.

Ninth, talk to your teens about how normal it is to feel self-conscious in new social situations. Let them know that the only way to overcome this feeling is to experience the awkwardness without reaching for alcohol or marijuana or any other drug. The feeling will diminish with practice, as they become more comfortable with themselves. Tell teens that if they drink to take away the feeling, the feeling just goes underground, but does not decrease, and eventually they will always have to have a drink in order to feel normal. This is how addiction gets started.

Tenth, If you think your child may be using alcohol or drugs to help them cope with worries or mental health problems, go to your GP, ask for help.




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