This month Elise Bennett, a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist in Kansas City, Missouri, writes about why teenagers are more vulnerable to alcohol, the impact alcohol has on the teen brain, and what you can do as a parent to prevent underage drinking.

Alcohol and the Teen Brain

The brain is not fully developed until at least the mid-twenties with the adolescent years being a crucial period in brain development. Because of this, teens are much more susceptible to the harmful effects of alcohol than adults.

Many of the teens that I work with in my practice are transparent about using alcohol as a coping strategy to manage their stress, depression, or anxiety. Since the alcohol often perpetuates the problem, a teen drinks more and more in a setting looking for the “benefits” they see marketed for alcohol in movies and the media.

Why Teens are More Vulnerable to Harmful Effects of Alcohol

The part of the brain undergoing the most growth during the adolescent years is the portion involved in impulse control, rule learning, and decision making. Developmentally, teens are in a stage where they don’t believe bad things will actually happen to them. Their ability to weigh risk versus reward is underdeveloped. This means decision making is often weighted more heavily toward the option that feels most fun in the moment without much consideration for the long-term impact.

Making healthy choices can even be seen in more benign examples of how teens weigh the importance of their schoolwork. When given the option of receiving five dollars for each day in a week they completed their homework or $50 on Friday if they complete their homework every day, an overwhelming number of teens chose to receive the instant gratification of having five dollars in their pocket. Similarly, teens that I work with describe the difficulty of choosing between the hope that consuming alcohol will be fun in the moment or delaying the instant gratification to maintain trust and respect from their parents.  

 Teens are in a stage of development where they don’t believe bad things will actually happen to them.

The Short and Long-term Consequences of Underage Drinking

A central nervous system depressant, alcohol slows down the brain and breathing, and heart rate and consciousness follow. In the short term, alcohol creates noticeable deficits in memory, impaired speech, impaired decision making, loss of muscle growth, deregulated sleep, and decreased ability to manage stress.

Because the teen brain is still building its architecture, alcohol and other drugs have the possibility of changing the trajectory of brain development. In the longer term, alcohol creates diminished gray matter in the brain, inability to think abstractly, memory loss, and loss of attention span.

While most cells in the body regenerate, cells damaged in the brain by alcohol are not replaced.

What Parents Can Do To Prevent Underage Drinking

Teens crave connection with their parents. I hear from parents regularly that they believe they are no longer relevant to their children once they hit adolescence. The reality, however, is that parents have the most influence over whether or not a teen chooses to drink underage. Over and over again, teen clients of mine verbalize the desire for their parents to ask them questions about their friends, their hobbies, and their identity.

Talking to your children, limiting access and refusing to give alcohol to your children are the most effective ways to impact an adolescent’s alcohol consumption.

Here are more ways you can minimize your teen’s risk of underage drinking:

  • Talk to other parents about not having alcohol at parties with your child.
  • Check in with your teenager before and after they go out.
  • Set clear expectations for behavior.
  • Practice good supervision and consistent discipline.
  • Minimize conflict in the family.
  • Eat dinner as a family as often as possible—this is a good time to talk about the issues your children face in a non-threatening way.

As a parent, you have the power to affect positive change in your children’s lives. Learn more about what you can do to prevent underage drinking!


 

Elise Bennett is a Clinically Licensed Therapist who works with adolescents, adults, and families. Elise works very closely with area school districts to collaborate treatment plans and mental health outcomes to benefit both her clients and the Northland adolescent community. Elise sits on the Executive Board for the Missouri Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, the Greater Kansas City Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and the Liberty Alliance for Youth. She has extensive lobbying, workshop and conference presentation experience including guest lecturing at area Universities and social service organizations.