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Teen Brains Vulnerable to Addiction

Wednesday, September 19, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Almost all people who develop addiction to alcohol or drugs start using when they’re young, before the age of 21. That’s why some who treat addiction refer to it as a young person’s disease. And, as Anne Glausser explains, the adolescent brain is particularly susceptible to addiction.

Maybe you’ve heard of them?  Pharm parties—P H A R M.  Not pigs, but pills.

Kids scrounge up pills they find around the house, in medicine cabinets, and then they all dump ‘em into a large bowl.

DELOS REYES:  …and then everybody at the party takes a handful of whatever, and then usually washes it down with alcohol.  And this is supposed to be sort of fun and the new way to party.

That’s Dr. Christina Delos Reyes, an addiction psychiatrist and chief clinical officer of the Alcohol Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County. 

Rebellious, impulsive behavior is often a hallmark of a teenager. And Delos Reyes says activity that’s risky and thrilling, like a “pharm party,” can have powerful appeal. 

DELOS REYES:  Trying to be on the edge, as close to the edge as you can get without falling off…probably that impulse is strongest when you’re in your teen years.

This is precisely what puts teens at risk of developing a serious drug or alcohol addiction.

Their brains are vulnerable.

DELOS REYES:  So there’s something about brain development that’s happening when someone is a young adult and a teenager that is very critical to the formation of this illness.

Teen brains are still wiring up.  Nerves are gaining speed and fluidity. Areas of the brain related to judgment and decision-making aren’t fully formed. 

DELOS REYES:  Our brains aren’t 100 percent fully developed and ready to rock until about the age of 25.

So it’s harder to weigh the consequences of things like pharm parties.

DELOS REYES:  With a lack of judgment and less impulse control, it sort of seems like a good idea at the time.

Not all kids who try drugs or alcohol are gonna become addicted.  Addiction is a disease and, for most people, it develops over time. Biology plays an important role but so does psychology and the environment we’re in.

Mike Matoney is the CEO of a local addiction treatment center called New Directions.  It focuses on teens.

MATONEY:  We first started 31 years ago to fill in a real gap that existed in Cuyahoga County and the greater Cleveland area.

The teen years are a critical time to intervene, he says.  Early help can help avoid years of wreckage. 

MATONEY:  You talk to any adult person who is in their 40s or 50s—they’re going to tell you they started using drugs and alcohol in their teens.

New Directions offers outpatient therapy as well as a residential program.  I spoke to a young woman there.  This is her second time in rehab. She asked that we not use her name.

TEEN:  I remember the first time I drank and my friend was telling me about it and I’m like “oh my god that seems cool,” and then we just drank.

Drinking progressed to weed, weed to pills, pills to heroin. 

She got help, but then relapsed.  She struggles to understand why.

TEEN:  It started to happen and then I was like, “Wow I can’t believe this is happening,” but it was like, I don’t know, my thinking just told me to think like it was whatever, until I really started noticing a problem.  I wanted to quit but then I just didn’t know how, I guess.

Being back at home, around friends, it was easy to slip back into old habits.

TEEN:  Then you just forget about the bad stuff and think like I just want to have fun again.  And forget it could get bad.

University Hospitals psychiatrist Delos Reyes says when young people start using drugs, it can set up a vicious cycle.

DELOS REYES:  We have less judgment and more impulsivity which then sets us up to use drugs and alcohol, which then damages our brain, to then control future intake…vicious cycle.

TEEN:  But like when you’re sober, like right now, you just think, about how crazy it is, I guess.  It seems normal at the time when you’re using but when you’re sober it’s hard.

Additional Information

What parents can do to spot, and prevent, drug abuse and addiction:

Research shows the teen years are a prime time for poor decision-making.  Because their brains are still developing, teens are more likely to do things impulsively and less likely to use good judgment. 

Addiction psychiatrist Dr. Christina Delos Reyes says parents can temper this by arming their children with knowledge about brain development and the disease of addiction.

She says, “Kids are going to not listen to you anyway.  I mean you’re the parent, they’re supposed to rebel against you, they’re supposed to find their own way, but you can at least give them the basic knowledge: realize that if you wait until you’re 21, you’re much less likely to have the disease of addiction then if you start using when you’re a teenager.”

She takes a hard line with her own kids: no alcohol, no tobacco, no sex.  This kind of assertive, specific, strong message from parents can be one of the best ways to deter drug use.

Delos Reyes says the most telling sign of drug abuse is to watch what are the friends of your child are doing.  Kids are also heavily influenced by their parents.

She says, “Kids do what their peers do and kids do what their parents do.”

Some physical signs of drug abuse include things like bloodshot eyes, a constant runny nose, and a change in sleep patterns.  Parents should also be on the lookout for changes in behavior, such as a drastic change in grades.

Click here for the National Institute on Drug Abuse website about teen drug abuse. 

Click here to visit the website of New Directions, a teen addiction treatment center in Cuyahoga County. 

Click here for Information about teen brain development from a HBO documentary project. 

What schools can do:

Schools can also play a role in preventing addiction.

Some schools are tackling addiction prevention in new ways, starting as early as kindergarten. They’re trying research-backed approaches that focus on developing life skills, like how to deal with stress and anger. 

Here are some links for parents, teachers, and administrators to find out more:

Click here to listen to the Sound of Ideas show on this topic. 

Preventing drug use among children and adolescents:  a research-based guide, produced by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

LifeSkills Training, one (of several) educational programs highlighted by the NIDA guide as effective


Health, Children's Health, Mental Health, Addiction

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