Alcohol and the Teenage Brain
From the time your child was born, you have created enriching opportunities where your child could
- develop new skills,
- be creative, and
You have seen your child develop and change in extraordinary ways. You know their developing brain continues to mature as a teenager. In fact, during the teenage years, your child’s brain goes through dramatic changes, second only to the first three years of life!1 This makes the teenage years particularly vulnerable to negative impacts on the brain. Between the ages of 12 and 21, alcohol use can significantly harm the brain.1 Drinking alcohol in the teen years can result in negative changes to how the brain develops and works.. Let’s explore
- the consequences of underage drinking,
- the impact of alcohol on the developing teenage brain, and
- your role as a parent in delaying the use of alcohol.
Brain Science Made Easy
There are two primary parts of the human brain: the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system is responsible for, among other things,
- our emotions (fear, anger, negativity),
- quick decisions (fight or flight),
- social needs, and
The limbic system is a reactionary system and can be called the lizard brain because it is the most primitive part of the brain and is comparable to the entire brain of a lizard. It is fight or flight, but not a lot of thought. It tells your teen to jump out of the way of a runaway bus when there is little time to think about it.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for
- decision making,
- thinking through consequences, and
- controlling impulses.
The prefrontal cortex can be called the wizard brain. It is the thinker. When the wizard brain is in charge, your teen will stop and think things through and consider consequences.
The lizard brain processes all stimulus received from a situation and communicates with the wizard brain through a relay system. During the teenage years, both the lizard brain and wizard brain go through massive changes and development to create more efficient systems.2The lizard brain is done with this restructuring around the age of 15, but the wizard brain is not done restructuring and maturing until the mid-twenties. Therefore, in times of stress or social pressure, the teenage brain is dominated by the lizard brain – the need for reward and meeting social needs, and rational decision making, considering consequences – the wizard – takes a back seat.2 This disconnect between the lizard brain and the wizard brain is made worse by alcohol. Alcohol use can disrupt healthy brain development and slow the development of the wizard brain, thereby increasing the likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors.
Even though a teen may know about the risk of drinking alcohol, in certain situations, they may still choose to drink. “I just wasn’t thinking” is partially true because of their developing brains.3 Because teens are very “now” oriented, whatever immediate situation a teen is in at that moment has a significant impact on their decision making. As a parent, you have probably already had multiple conversations about the harmful consequences of choosing to drink alcohol or try other drugs. And, you may have ended those conversations feeling confident that your teen understands the risks. However, all the brain matter required to apply their knowledge at the right time may not be there – the wizard may still be sitting in the back seat instead of the driver seat.4 The way to support your teen’s brain is to prepare your teen for high-risk situations that they will encounter by continuing to have frequent conversations about alcohol. Teens need the structure and support of their parents to help prepare their brains to make the right decision when the pressure is high.
Impact of Alcohol on the Brain
Alcohol has a greater negative impact on a teenager’s brain than an adult’s brain. This is because during the teenage years, the brain is going through significant structural and functional changes. Neural connections that are used frequently are being strengthened while those that are not used are weakened or discarded. When alcohol is used during this time that the brain is going through a clean-up and pruning process, it affects the developing brain in several different ways.
- It affects the way neurons communicate with each other.
- It damages brain tissue.
- It impacts areas in the brain focused on learning and memory.5
Neurons communicate with each other using chemicals called neurotransmitters. Two neurotransmitters that are particularly impacted by alcohol use are dopamine and GABA. Dopamine is involved in motivation, learning, and reward. GABA is involved in mood management and has a calming, sedative effect. Alcohol disrupts these neurotransmitters making it more difficult for teenagers to
- learn new behaviors,
- feel motivated,
- calm their emotions, and
- feel rewarded.6
Alcohol also damages brain tissue in a few key parts of the brain. In particular, alcohol has a negative impact on the hippocampus, which is necessary to form new memories.5 Alcohol also affects the white and gray matter of the brain. White matter acts as the superhighway and connects information across the brain.5 When white matter is damaged by alcohol, it makes it harder to control behavior. Alcohol also damages gray matter which is responsible for processing information in the prefrontal cortex thereby affecting
- concentration, and
- decision making.5
The teenage years are an important time for the developing brain. Alcohol can negatively impact this developmental process.
Can Parents Really Make a Difference?
As a parent, you are the most important influence in your child’s life.7You play an essential role in your child’s decision to not drink alcohol.8Being actively involved in your child’s life makes it less likely that they will drink alcohol. You have a direct impact on whether your child decides to drink alcohol when you
- talk with your child about alcohol and the negative impacts,
- model healthy and positive behavior, and
- stay involved in their life.
The age at which a child drinks matters in terms of the negative effects of alcohol. You can greatly reduce repercussions of alcohol on your teen’s brain development if you can delay the age at which your teen initiates alcohol use.9
Teens desire the approval of their parents, and two-thirds of youth ages 13 to 17 say that losing their parents’ respect is one of the main reasons they don’t use drugs.10
Youth who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop future alcohol dependence compared to youth who begin drinking after age 21.11
The teenage brain is more susceptible to the negative effects of alcohol than an adult brain over the age of 25. Alcohol use as a teen can result in significant impairment in the
- structure, and
- function of the brain.
Because of how the human brain develops, when teens use alcohol it puts them at even greater risk for engaging in other risky behaviors like initiation of other drugs and teen pregnancy.11 Longer-term consequences include permanent learning disabilities and greater likelihood of misusing alcohol later in life.11
Unfortunately, despite being such an important influence, parents often underestimate the influence they have on their teen’s decision to drink alcohol. Parents underestimate the difference they can make in guiding their teen’s choices and behaviors. Yo
Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2019). Alcohol and the Teenage Brain. Retrieved from https://www.ParentingMontana.org.