Teenagers And Addiction: They Are Not Simply Younger Adults

“Youth are heated by nature as drunken men by wine”
Aristotle (350 B.C.)

As the medical field continues to make strides towards gaining a clearer understanding about the disease of addiction, one of the greatest challenges remains the understanding of how drugs of abuse and addiction affect teenagers.

Far from being simply “younger versions of adults”, teenagers are at a stage of brain development that is, as it turns out, developmentally unique.  That is, as the human brain develops from childhood into adolescence, certain brain regions seem to flourish, and other areas don’t fully develop until adulthood.

Over the past decade, advances in brain imaging have allowed scientists to more fully understand the process of normal adolescent brain development, and this in turn has had a great impact upon our current understanding of how teenage addiction and the impact of substances of abuse affect the developing teenage brain.

During this normal time of developmental “limbo,” teenagers are prone to risk-taking, pleasure-seeking and experiencing intense emotional reactions to seemingly minimal problems; likewise, they often lack the ability to effectively weigh risks vs. rewards, make reasoned judgments about the consequences of their actions or make sound decisions during times of emotional upheaval.

To further complicate matters, these developing regions of the teenage brain that are growing rapidly towards the “balanced” adult brain, are the very same regions that are biologically prone to damage from drugs of abuse!

The reason this is so important is not only because developing a clear understanding of the adolescent brain’s vulnerability to drugs and alcohol will likely provide key insights that allow for more effective treatments, but also because parents who bring their teenagers in for evaluation and treatment need to understand that their kids are not yet adults, and therefore require specialized care and treatment that is known to be effective for adolescents.

It is important to realize that while many teenagers manifest signs and exhibit symptoms that indicate a likely problem with substance abuse such as declining grades, behavioral problems, social isolation and irritable or aggressive behaviors, this is not always the case.  That is, a good number of young people with teenage drug addiction issues look absolutely normal in terms of their ability to function, maintain good self-care and even perform well academically!

Another important issue is the fact that many teenagers who experience problems with drugs and alcohol also suffer from co-occurring psychiatric problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and other behavioral health issues, which not only make them more vulnerable to developing serious problems with drugs in the future, but may affect their course of treatment significantly.  Therefore, it is of paramount importance that a qualified addiction specialist be involved early on.