In building upon the topic of adolescent years, I have found it important to address how alcohol and other drugs (AODs) can potentially influence brain development, particularly during this vulnerable adolescent time period and in an international community where parenting cultures and belief systems often collide.
What the Research Tells Us
When discussing with parents the effects of AODs on the adolescent brain, I like to use the analogy of a computer being updated. During the adolescent years, your child’s brain is going through a full system reboot where structural hardware changes and chemical software changes are taking place. Research shows us that when we start to introduce foreign substances to this updating period, we run the risk of throwing this process off track.
On a chemical level, everyone’s brain has a reward circuit that becomes activated when we do something pleasurable. When we hug a loved one, taste a delicious bite of food, or get an A+ on a test, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released and the reward circuit is activated to give us a ‘feel good’ sensation. This is particularly true for teens and their ‘If it feels good, do it’ mentality. Brain imaging studies have shown how AODs can also activate that reward circuit, but often at excessive and unreasonable levels. AODs have been shown to create an unnatural amount of the dopamine neurotransmitter to be pushed through the pleasure pathways in our brain, which results in highs that are unreasonably high, followed by lows that can feel catastrophic. Prolonged use of AODs can all result in dulled dopamine receptor sites in the brain, meaning that everyday experiences that may have used to bring us pleasure are no longer enjoyable. Relationships are less gratifying, achievements are less celebrated, and motivation to do things can reach an all-time low.
On a brain’s structural hardware level, research has shown that the hippocampus region of the brain is noticeably smaller in size in alcohol abusing teens than in their non-alcohol abusing counterparts. The hippocampus is a critical region in the brain, as it serves the function of transmitting short-term memories to long term. This function allows us to learn new things and store them for later recall, a brain function that is critical to success in school and everyday living. Not only did the size disparity of these regions show up in brain imaging studies, but when study participants were given neuropsychological tests to assess for their ability to recall facts, plan and execute tasks, and maintain attention, alcohol users performed statistically significantly worse than the non-using control subjects.
Tips for Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices:
1. Be proactive
In the same way that we don’t take our car to the shop until it needs repairs, I’ve found that many parents don’t have discussions about AODs until the child has already gotten in trouble. Talking with our children in advance when both their defenses and our own defenses are down can help to facilitate a much smoother conversation for both sides.
2. Set rules and routines with respect
When granting your emerging adolescent new privileges, the expectations for behavior need to be well established at the outset. Have a discussion with your child about what the ground rules are and how you enforce those rules, while also doing what you can to respect their boundaries and privacy. Ultimately parents have the final say, but you will find that your teens are much more agreeable to their rules/expectations of behavior when they feel they had a hand in helping to decide them.
3. Stay connected
It’s highly likely you’ve met someone experiencing similar apprehensions that you have about parenting a teenager. The old adage of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is especially true during a child’s adolescent years, so making sure to develop a support group of other parents will be necessary. Staying connected also extends to enrolling your child in extracurricular activities—whether it be sports, performing arts, debate team, or the like. Having you in the stands cheering them on will be sure to ignite that ‘feel good’ reward circuitry without the need for drugs or alcohol.
Dr. Balfanz is the Senior Clinical Psychologist at American Medical Center/JJ-Premier Medical Care (AMC/JJP), a comprehensive mental and medical health service clinic for children, adolescents, adults, and families living in Shanghai. For more information on clinic services, contact Dr. Balfanz at: firstname.lastname@example.org.