Girls vaping

Teen Drug and Alcohol Use Impacts Brain Development: How You Can Help

professional headshot of a smiling womanBy Nicole Zenk, CNP, Family Medicine

Substance use changes the brain and affects people’s behaviors and actions. A person with a substance use disorder may use alcohol, nicotine, or street drugs. Since anyone can become an active user, what are the signs of your child or teenager becoming dependent? How does it affect their developing brain? And how can you help?

Signs of Addiction

A person who keeps using drugs can feel helpless to stop, even though their health is impacted, school/jobs suffer, or connections with others deteriorate—whether it’s relationships or getting along with family and friends. Other signs:

  • New group of friends.
  • Activities are no longer important.
  • Skipping school and poor grades.
  • Eating/sleeping are affected.
  • Problems with school authorities or local law enforcement.

Effects on the Young Brain

man removing something from pocketDrug use impacts three areas of the brain. It can even change its performance—affecting normal bodily functions needed for life, such as how emotions are controlled, how information is processed through the senses, or how decisions are made. The teenage brain develops unevenly, with the parts that control physical activity, emotion, and motivation coming along first. The prefrontal cortex develops later with the ability to control impulses and make good choices. Since the “good judgment” part of the brain is still under construction, substance use as a teen has more risk for harm, both immediately and long-term.

Stay in touch.

Continuing to be involved in your teen’s life is recommended by the Partnership to End Addiction to help prevent teenage drug/alcohol use. Even though they want to be more independent, maintaining a strong connection with your child can reduce the chances of using substances. Be aware of ways your teen’s patterns and relationships may change, both online and offline. Continue to keep tabs on them:

• Share quality time
• Ask questions to show interest (without interrogating!)
• Meet their friends and their friends’ parents
• Check in with their teachers/coaches or even volunteer at school
• Watch their social media

Communication Tips

Even though they may resist, connect with your teen on a regular basis. The Partnership to End Addiction also has good examples of using “active listening” and “I” statements, which “describe the behavior, how you feel about it, and how it affects you.” By communicating this way, you can express your feelings to your teen without them feeling attacked or blamed. My Life My Quit also has resources for parents and guardians to help start the conversation with their teens, plus much more.

Above all, even though they may resist the message, keep reminding them that you love them and are there to help them make safe choices.

If you have concerns about your child and substance use, discuss them with your physician. If you don’t have a family medicine doctor, contact us at Glacial Ridge for an appointment at a clinic in your area.

Nicotine/Tobacco Cessation Resources for Adults and Teens

  • Quit Partner – Double your chances of quitting with Quit Partner, Minnesota’s free way to quit nicotine, including smoking, vaping, and chewing. 24/7 support.
  • For adults who wish to quit and parents who are trying to help support their teens in quitting nicotine/vaping:

Specific to Teens:

  • Check out Quit Your Way – a free, confidential program for teens 13-17 from Quit Partner – Minnesota.
    • You can also text Start My Quit to 36072