May 7, 2021

Protecting Teens from Alcohol Abuse

Prom Night, Grad Night or Holiday Bar-B-Q – teens and alcohol are hauntingly omnipresent. If your arguments for abstaining from alcohol are losing their oomph or maybe missing the mark, there is some new research out on the effects of alcohol on teens that might fill your quiver.

One study was done by Susan Tapert, a neuroscientist at University of California San Diego on the effect of alcohol use on the developing brain.

Teen Brains are Different

FACT: Teen brains are not adult brains. Your teen might have a deep voice and tower over you, but you are not fooled by this. Your young adult’s decision-making is often anything but adult.

There’s a reason for that: teen brains are still in development. Scientists used to think that brain development was complete by around age 10. But today we know that the frontal lobes are not fully connected to the rest of the brain until the mid 20′s. This poor communication with other parts of the brain shows up in judgment, i.e., the ability to determine “is this a good idea?”, or “what are the consequences of this action”.

Tapert wanted to understand how alcohol affects these not-fully-developed brains. So she studied a group of 12-14-year-olds, before any alcohol or drug use, and followed them for a while. Over time, some of these kids started drinking, some of them drinking heavily — 4 to 5 drinks per occasion, 2 to 3 times a month. Upon testing them she found significant decreases in memory and thinking among alcohol users.

In addition, she found a difference between girls and boys in some particular kinds of functions that were affected. Alcohol use affected girls’ spacial functioning, which impacted their talent for mathematics and engineering. Boys who used alcohol had more attention problems, which led to problems focusing on boring tasks or information over long periods of time. Tapert describes it as “the difference between an “A” and a “B”.

Safe Amount of Alcohol

While everyone is different, Tapert maintains that there may be no safe amount of alcohol for some teens. Further, Harvard neuroscientist Frances Jensen points out that the brain chemistry of children and adolescents is responsive to everything in their environment — that’s how they are able to learn so easily. It also makes it much easier for kids to become addicted than adults.

Protecting your Kids from Alcohol Abuse After they Leave Home

Alcohol researcher, Caitlin Abar, from Pennsylvania State University studied how parents handled the alcohol issue with their high school kids and then followed up with 300 kids after one semester at college. She found that the best long-term protection against overuse of alcohol came from parents who completely disapproved of underage alcohol use. Children with permissive parents during high school were more at risk for binge drinking later.

Their conclusions refute the common European practice of drinking with the family as a way of teaching them to drink responsibly. This was reinforced in a recent survey of 15- and 16-year-olds across Europe showing a higher rater of teen drunkenness than in the U.S.

Hold the Line on Alcohol

So hang tough. As the research unfolds about alcohol, teens, and addiction, we need to let go of the beliefs we held as carefree young adults and be willing to play by new rules. There’s a lot at stake.

Read more  about the impact alcohol use can have on your college student. And find out more about these studies and related stories at National Public Radio.

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