Father and daughter embracing

The Developing Brain

Our brains don’t finish developing until we are in our mid-twenties. Specifically, the frontal lobe of the brain (which is responsible for thinking, decision making, problem solving, judgement and self-control) is the last to mature and isn’t fully developed until age 25. This means that teens are neurologically more likely to engage in impulsive/risky behaviors, have greater difficulty controlling emotions and are more inclined toward high-excitement or thrill-seeking activities. 

In addition, teen brains are still developing myelin which acts as an insulator for messages that come to the brain. The older you are, the more ‘insulated’ the brain becomes from these messages which makes them easier to handle. Teens experience more intense messages in their brains and experience feelings like pleasure and sadness more intensely than adults. This also means that drugs and alcohol have more effects on teens than they do on adults. Therefore, the earlier a person starts using substances, the more likely they will develop serious problems with drugs or alcohol later in life. 

  • Alcohol and other drugs interfere with connections forming in a teen’s brain and makes them more vulnerable to addiction.

  • Substances override the brain’s natural reward system and the brain starts to prioritize drugs/alcohol over healthy activities like food, sleep and healthy relationships. 

  • Young people who use drugs/alcohol have increased risk of mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, mood disorders and psychosis.

  • When an adolescent drinks alcohol or uses drugs, it can damage the parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning, self-control and decision making. 

  • Alcohol negatively affects memory, abstract thinking, problem solving, attention and concentration. It also reduces the levels of serotonin in the brain and encourages risky activities. 

  • Marijuana negatively affects cognitive function, problems with memory, learning and maintaining attention. Heavy use has been associated with lowered IQ scores.

Risk-Factors for Substance MisuseSmoker

  • Family history of substance use/addition
  • Co-occurring mental health diagnosis (anxiety, depression, ADHD) or learning disability
  • Behavioral or impulse control difficulties 
  • Exposure to trauma
  • Environmental factors (substance us in the family or among peers, easy access to alcohol or drugs, exposure to media that encourages use)
  • Low academic achievement/low commitment to school 
  • Limited connectedness to healthy friends/supports
  • Favorable parental attitudes toward the behavior
  • Age of first use: the younger someone starts using a substance, the more likely they are to become addicted

Girl with hand up hiding face

1. Delay the Onset of Use

The earlier youth start using substances, the greater the risk of developing a substance use disorder. In fact, 90% of people who have struggled with addiction starting using before age 18.

clenched fist2. Build Resilience Factors

Protective factors help buffer youth from high-risk behaviors like substance use and help youth feel more connected.

  • Parent or family engagement
  • Ability to make meaningful friendships
  • Family support
  • Healthy peer groups
  • Parental disapproval of substance use
  • High Self-Esteem
  • Empowerment
  • Parental monitoring
  • School Connectedness
  • Positive Norms
  • Clear expectations and consequences