Teens, Alcohol, and Brain Damage

This post is mainly for parents of kids aged 10-25. But if you’re a grandparent, a coach, a teacher, or involved in programs that help teens, you should read this, too.

I’ve written several posts – mostly directed at parents – about why adolescence is such a perilous time. This is the period from about age 10 until the early 20s when the prefrontal cortex is going through the critical “use it or lose it” blossoming and pruning process on the way to establishing an individual’s foundation for critical thinking. To ingrain critical thinking skills, a kid has to do it a lot. Which teens find it hard to do because that part of the brain is “under construction.” As I’ve said many times, they need help from parents, teachers, coaches and mentors. Without this kind of adult guidance the window of opportunity could close forever in their early 20s with very little foundation in place. The consequences are enormous for the young person.

My message to parents has been: “You’ve got a lot of work to do.” They already sense that, I’m sure. But the work I outline goes beyond reacting negatively to a teen’s irrational behavior, mood swings and impulsiveness.

To help feed the fires of parental motivation and commitment, I’d like to share an important insight. It has to do with the consequences when a teen goes astray and the parent fails to intervene.

Say your underage teen goes to a party at a friend’s house and alcohol is available. Naturally, there will be peer pressure to “act adult” and “have fun” and “make history” hooting it up with his pals. Say the kid fails to use critical judgment and gets drunk. Maybe you find out the next morning when he’s hung over and doesn’t want to go to school. The immediate consequences are your outrage that the party wasn’t supervised and underage drinking was going on, your disappointment in your child, the child’s ineffectiveness in school, and a bunch of brain cells destroyed – the same thing that would happen if YOU got drunk.

This is bad enough, but if that’s all that happened, you got off easy. The first drink aggravated his limited ability to think critically. As a consequence, he had more drinks, which made his impaired judgment even worse. And with that, ANYTHING could have happened: DUI, vandalism, assault, rape, even death. Seriously. I read about these incidents every week, and you probably do, too. If you think this couldn’t happen to you, you’re wrong. It happens. It’s a simple matter of cause and effect, with enormous consequences.

But the really scary thing is something else. Surely, you’ve heard the medical warnings about why a mother shouldn’t ingest drugs during pregnancy. Use of alcohol, tobacco or drugs could cause her child to be born intellectually challenged. The reason is that the some of the drug is passed to the fetus’s brain during a time of critical brain development. If this happens at the wrong time, the development will not proceed normally. The child will be mentally impaired for the rest of his life.

The same thing happens when a teenager drinks alcohol or uses drugs. They are smack in the middle of one of the most critical phases of brain development, and the substance can derail this process. If a teen drinks alcohol to excess at the wrong time, the young person could be mentally impaired for the rest of his life – permanent damage to the part of the brain that handles understanding, conceptual thinking, association, logic, evaluation, critical judgment, decision making, foresight, creativity and planning.

Are you with me?

And that’s not all. Not to forget that if you don’t intervene with love, communication and guidance, he may do it again. Which means he’s well on his way to making this a behavior pattern, the one we call “alcoholism.”

The teen journey is indeed a perilous one. It’s a wonder kids get through it alive. And of course some don’t. Others survive, but they don’t thrive. They make it to adulthood in pretty bad shape.

And this isn’t what we want for our kids. In our hearts, we hope for a lot more. That’s why I wrote these books for teens – give them a “heads-up” about several huge issues…

Conversations with the Wise Aunt – for girls

Conversations with the Wise Uncle – for boys

Interesting real-world story about a problem teen – from Meredith Bell…

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