Alcohol and the young adult's brain
It’s no secret that teens and young adults are an experimental bunch. This phase of life has earned a reputation for poor decision making, lack of good judgement and risk-taking, along with a false sense of invincibility -- a recipe for danger. Much of these “classically teen” behaviors have to do with the fact that the adolescent brain is still developing in several areas. Not only does this contribute to those characteristically risky behaviors and actions, it means the young adult brain is much more likely to be impacted long term if chemical substances are introduced to the mix.
This is why alcohol use is such an important habit to address with teens. They may look like adults but they’re still in their formative years and today’s actions can lead to bigger problems in the future more quickly than most of us realize.
Is your child drinking?
According to the CDC, alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug among youth in the United States. In a 2017 survey by the organization, nearly one-third of high school students reported having consumed alcohol in the past month. Teens generally don’t perceive alcohol as a harmful substance and tend to assume if it’s perfectly legal for adults, its effects aren’t any more dangerous for them.
Every parent should educate themselves and their children about the dangers of drinking at a young age and the long-term detrimental effects it can have. Most kids in a traditional high-school setting will be exposed to alcohol at some point. But if you notice sudden behavioral changes, such as mood swings and defensiveness, suddenly declining grades, new friend groups, low energy or disinterest in favorite activities, they could be signs that your teen is using alcohol.
Don’t wait to address your concerns as the consequences of alcohol abuse in adolescence can lead to irreversible changes in the brain that may have long-term impact on decision making, memory, learning and addictive behaviors in the future. And the younger the brain, the greater the damage and risk of permanent changes in how it develops.
Brain construction under the influence
The prefrontal lobe, where behaviors like planning and impulse control are processed, undergoes the biggest changes during the pre-adulthood and is very susceptible to the influences of outside substances. Additionally, the hippocampus, where memory retention and learning take place, is highly affected by alcohol. Of course, consuming alcohol impacts the entire brain, along with many other organs in the body, but in the developing brain these two areas are of particular concern.
Because the prefrontal lobe is still forming, teens haven’t mastered control of their impulses and decision making skills. The double whammy is that this means they’re more likely to engage in risky drinking behaviors but even more alarming is that excessive and/or frequent use of alcohol can change how this area of the brain grows and develop, hindering those same skills later in life. A teen who drinks frequently or binge drinks repeatedly may become an adult who has trouble controlling outbursts and inhibitions and who struggles with forming ideas and critical thinking.
The hippocampus governs short and long-term memory formation and helps facilitate learning. Like the prefrontal cortex, it isn’t yet fully formed in a young adult brain. Alcohol can poison the nerve cells, damaging and even destroying them, stunting the growth of the hippocampus and short-circuiting memory development. Studies have shown that adults who were heavy drinkers in adolescence have trouble recalling newly learned information and forming long-term memories.
Still other studies have found a reduction in white matter in the brains of people who participated in binge drinking at a young age. The white matter is essential to the brain’s messaging system functioning optimally -- it connects the areas of gray matter which is where information is processed. Poor connections mean the brain isn’t as efficient. And scarier yet is the fact that all research points to these changes in the brain being irreversible.
Early binging’s link to adult addiction
Because alcohol’s effect is so much more powerful in a young developing brain, people who begin drinking at an early age are far more likely to become alcoholics or have problems with alcohol later in life. Research has found that in kids who began drinking before age 14, nearly half became dependent on drinking at some point later in life. In contrast, less than ten percent of people who begin drinking at age 21 or older develop dependency issues.
This is the reason we have a drinking age in the United States. The human brain continues to grow until our early 20’s (some experts even say into our 30s). When the introduction of alcohol is delayed until the brain is less malleable, the risks of long-term damage and addiction are greatly reduced.
How to address your teen’s alcohol use
There are many factors that can contribute to a young adult’s attitudes and behaviors around drinking. Because alcohol is a “legal” substance (for adults over the age of 21), kids often see their parents and other grown-ups in their lives drinking - sometimes to excess - and therefore think it’s no big deal. In fact heavy drinking is a widely accepted, even expected, activity on college campuses. On top of that, celebrities endorse all sorts of products and advertisers even target young people with ads glamorize alcohol and risky behaviors. Again, to an immature brain with not yet solidified critical thinking and decision making skills, this makes drinking look very attractive.
Of course, as parents we all want to help our children make smart, age appropriate decisions. Educate your kids about the real, long-term effects of using alcohol at a young age and create an environment where they feel safe to ask questions or call you if they find themselves in a dangerous situation. The chance that they’ll be exposed to alcohol is very high; give them the tools and the language to be comfortable with resisting the temptation to consume it.
That said, the statistics show that alcohol abuse is a serious issue among adolescents in the U.S. If you suspect your child is drinking, Peaks Recovery Centers can help. We are a long-term recovery center dedicated to helping young people rediscover the joy of living through age-specific treatment that we have proven works.
Please contact us anytime at and we’ll work with you to develop the right plan of action for your loved one.