Understanding the unique dynamics of the evolving teenage brain can help parents promote healthy development and resilience in their adolescents. Adolescents reach physical maturity during puberty — around age 13 for girls and 16 for boys. More impressive is the maturation of the brain, which continues into the 20s.
Alcohol’s affect on the teenage brain is dramatically different than the adult brain. Teens are much more sensitive to the poisoning effects of alcohol on the neural connections for learning, memory and judgment. This is much more global than for adults because of the interconnectedness and plasticity of the teen brain.
Because of the relative immaturity of the prefrontal cortex, alcohol more readily derails common sense and releases control of the primitive limbic brain. Heavy drinking, either as binge or chronic drinking, may cause lasting impairment on memory, reasoning and attention. As the brain becomes more hardwired into a person’s early 20s, the negative impacts on the teen brain become entrenched. The teen brain is at greater risk of alcohol abuse and craving alcohol, especially if negative stressors are present.
Most adolescent deaths are related to accidents, homicides and suicides — and alcohol is a common mitigating factor. Teens are inexperienced drinkers, and drivers, and the combination of the two is deadly.
Tips for parents
- Repeatedly discuss zero-tolerance expectations for alcohol use and to never drive or get in a car when alcohol has been consumed.
- Expect that your teen, at some point, will consume alcohol. Discuss safety and contingency plans for ensure your child gets home safely in the event he or she drinks.
- Focus on the short-term rewards for not drinking (driving privileges, school athletics) and punishment (no driving privileges, paying for car insurance) rather than the future consequences (liver cirrhosis or death) which have little reality for the teen brain, which perceives itself as being invulnerable and superhuman.
- Don’t ignore the girls. Teenage girls are now drinking alcohol sooner than boys, thanks to the glamour and availability of sweet, fruity flavored beverages like wine coolers.
The teen brain is resilient, frustrating and unpredictably predictable; its capacity and potential are unlimited. Nurturing this potential is the job of the parent of the teen brain. Embrace your beloved teenaged children; they are your future.
David Aughey, MD, specializes in adolescent medicine at Children’s Minnesota.