There is a reason so many of our teens and preteens behave as if they are immortal and acting on impulse without considering the consequences. Blame it partially on their brain.

“Don’t you trust me?” your child asks. When it comes to decision-making about the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, it’s not just about trust. It’s about understanding adolescent brain development.

There is a reason so many of our teens and preteens behave as if they are immortal and acting on impulse without considering the consequences. Blame it partially on their brain.

The part of the brain that promotes impulsivity and risk-taking develops early in teens, while the brain area responsible for thinking, planning, good judgment, decision-making and impulse control is undergoing the most change (and will continue to develop well into the mid-20s). Because of this lack of brain maturity, teens and preteens lack the ability to control impulses. This increases the probability of engaging in risky behavior, like smoking, drinking and illegal drug use.

Risk-taking may be based in biology, but that does not diminish the possible unhealthy consequences of alcohol and other drugs and tobacco on the developing teen brain. Recent brain research with an MRI suggests that alcohol impacts adolescents differently than it does adults. Young people are more vulnerable to the negative effects of alcohol in the part of the brain that regulates working memory and learning. Consequently, heavy use of alcohol and other drugs during the teen years can result in lower scores on tests of memory and attention in one’s early to mid-20s. People who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to become alcohol dependent than those who wait until they are 21. Teens also tend to be less sensitive than adults to alcohol’s sedative qualities. Sedation in response to alcohol is one of the ways the body protects itself, since it is impossible to keep drinking once asleep or passed out. Teenagers are able to stay awake longer with higher blood alcohol levels than older drinkers can. This difference allows teens to drink more, thereby exposing themselves to greater cognitive impairment and perhaps brain damage from alcohol poisoning. There are also striking differences in the way nicotine affects adolescent and adult smokers. Nicotine results in cell damage and loss throughout the brain at any age, but in teenagers the damage is worse in the mind’s memory bank. Compared to adults, teen smokers experience more episodes of depression and cardiac irregularities, and are more apt to become quickly and persistently nicotine-dependent. Drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines target dopamine receptor neurons in the brain, and damage to these may affect adolescent brain development for life in the areas of impulse control and ability to experience reward. Other effects of substance abuse in adolescents include delays in developing executive functions (judgment, planning and completing tasks, meeting goals) and overblown and immature emotional responses to situations.

In this critical stage of development, your child needs an informed parent to step in, to set clear boundaries and serve as that impulse control.

How You Can Help Your Child:

•Explain the risks of alcohol, tobacco and other drug use

•Talk early and often

•Set clear non-use rules

•Know your child’s friends (and their parents)

•Know where your child is at all times

•Play an active role in your child’s daily life

For information about how to talk to your kids about drugs and alcohol, visit our website at www.usacbrowncounty. org.