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Drugs & the Developing Brain

Parenting is hard. There is no manual for this gig and it can be overwhelming to navigate difficult stretches with your child. Let me revise can be overwhelming to navigate any stretch with your child - even the good ones! If you are like most parents, you are doing the best you can and are building the plane as you fly it, so to speak. Because every kid (and family) is different, there's no singular formula to raise a healthy adult. Instead, research (and a lot of other peoples' experiences) has given us different methods and procedures that have been proven to be effective when used collectively with other strategies. Love, unconditional positive regard, open communication and attention are just a few of those 'other' strategies that happen to be some of the most powerful ones. But as you raise your child and approach the preteen years, it's time to introduce more formal strategies of prevention as well. I think one of the most helpful things for parents is to have a bit of background knowledge about the developing brain, which may inform your rules and expectations around substance use.

In terms of brain science, the developing brain is a HUGE factor when we talk about alcohol and drug use and all things related to teenage exploration. As you may remember from 10th grade Biology, the brain develops from the back to the front, leaving the prefrontal cortex as the last to fully wire. The prefrontal cortex is where the brain houses reasoning, inhibition, decision-making, delayed gratification, and control.  For girls, it's not fully developed until around 22 years of age and for boys around 25. This is a big deal. For one, it means that science is working against teenagers when it comes to risky decision-making because they physically don’t have the same "resources" adults do. But also, when we add substances to the developing brain, it can have long-lasting impacts on their development.

For example, drinking and drug use changes the reward circuits that underlie lifelong problems with addition. When you drink or use drugs, the reward circuitry of the brain becomes active. This area is responsible for the pleasurable feelings associated with substance use, but it also underlies cravings and drug-seeking behaviors. Taking drugs as an adolescent makes long-lasting changes to this reward system, making it much more likely that you will struggle with addiction later in life. Research has also proven a link between drug and alcohol use with damage to memory and logical reasoning. Teenage users tend to have poorer memory, lower attention, and slower processing abilities. Marijuana use in particular has been shown to reduce working memory and cognitive flexibility.

These drug related changes can be permanent. And they’ve also been linked to serious mental health issues in early adulthood – from major depression and bipolar disorder to schizophrenia and some of the more serious diagnoses.

So, as a parent, we need to BE the prefrontal cortex for our teenagers. If you have young kids, you’re probably already doing this. Whether it’s teaching them how to look both ways in the parking lot or guiding them on their bike as they learn how to do it, you are guiding them through some of those activities to keep them safe because they wouldn’t know the appropriate boundaries on their own. As it is with teenagers, we need to be their reasoning and judgment until they’re ready to do that on their own.

TIMEOUT! I'm not suggesting we all act as helicopter parents and make every decision for our teens. They need to explore their autonomy and independence, too. It's a delicate balance. But we can be their prefrontal cortex by giving them the information they need to know and by making your expectations of zero-use known. They need to understand all of the risks associated with use during their prime development. By the way, here is a great article on why not to be a helicopter parents. Researchers are seeing links to anxiety and other issues later in early adulthood. Land those helicopters, folks. Back to brain development...

HOW do we do this? Make your ideas and expectations around drug use known. Research shows that kids are less likely to engage in risky behaviors if they think their parents would disapprove. Also, this is where access comes into the picture. Over half of people who have abused prescription pain medications, for example, got them from friends or family. Think about where you store your medications (even over-the-counter medications can be abused, by the way). Many people store meds by the coffee maker or in plain sight in the bathroom. Easy access to medications, alcohol, drugs, privacy, alone time, etc. is a proven risk factor for engaging in risky behaviors so by eliminating access, you are protecting your child. Examples include:

  • Locking up medications and alcohol

  • Disposing of extras properly (here is a list of drop-off boxes in Hennepin County)

  • Take a look around their bedroom for signs of any problems

  • Communicate your strong stance against substance use of any kind

  • Control prescription medications after an injury or procedure *this is an absolute MUST

It’s going to look different for each family but understanding the culture of your teen is a huge piece to this puzzle. It’s often a reality that if your child has their wisdom teeth out, chances are someone is going to ask them for any extra pain meds when they return to school. Just knowing that can prevent abuse from happening if you control those meds. Because again, their brains aren’t wired to protect them from risky decisions. WE need to be their prefrontal cortex until they can protect themselves. We can do that by removing easy access to those meds, in this example.

(Alison Wobschall, M.A.)


Diamond, A. (2002). Normal development of prefrontal cortex from birth to young adulthood: cognitive functions, anatomy, and biochemistry. In Principles of Frontal Lobe Function, Stuss, D.T. & Knight, R.T. (Eds.), 466-503. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Squeglia, L.M., Jacobus, J., & Tapert, S.F. (2009). The influence of substance use on adolescent brain development. Clinical EEG and Neuroscience, 40(1): 31-38.

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