Adolescence: A high-risk time for substance use disorders

Mother Having Serious Conversation With Teenage Daughter At Home

Teens need to explore and challenge themselves to grow into independent adults, which sometimes involves taking risks. It can be a source of consternation and frustration for parents. But as it turns out, the adolescent brain is “deliberately” set up for risk-taking. The prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain involved in “executive functions” that support careful decision-making (like self-monitoring and impulse control) — does not fully develop until the mid-20s, long after the maturation of the emotional processing and reward-seeking centers in what is called the limbic system.

This helps explain why teens seek out highly stimulating and rewarding activities while seeming less wary of potential risks. While these characteristics make adolescents excellent learners, they also make them vulnerable, particularly when it comes to substance use.

Parents of adolescents face a tough dilemma about substance use: we may want our children to be abstinent, but what do we do if they are not? We know the stakes are high. The very features that make the adolescent brain good at learning from new experiences also make it vulnerable to loss of control over substance use, or addiction. Research suggests that people who start using substances at younger ages are more likely to develop substance use disorders later in life. (Medical professionals use “substance use disorder” as a more specific and less stigmatizing term for “addiction.” It simply refers to a pattern of substance use that is harmful, with a spectrum of severity.)

While parents can and should communicate clearly that non-use is the best decision for health, we simply can’t control every aspect of young people’s lives. Discovering that a child has used alcohol or other drugs provides only a small snippet of information. For some teens, sporadic substance use wanes over time without long-term consequences; for others, recurrent use may be part of a burgeoning substance use or mental health disorder. These two extremes deserve different responses, and open conversation is important for understanding context.

Ignoring or permitting substance use may enable ongoing use, while overly harsh punishment may diminish opportunities for honest and meaningful conversations between parents and children. Ideally, parents can find a way to set limits and expectations about substance use while preserving open channels for discussion. In an upcoming post we’ll share five important things to keep in mind when talking to your children about substance use.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” – Matthew 7:11

 “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” – Proverbs 17:22

 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” – Philippians 4:6

 “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” – Proverbs 4:23

 “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” – 2 Timothy 1:7

 “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” – James 1:2-3

 “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” – Proverbs 3:6

 “Commit your actions to the LORD, and your plans will succeed.”- Proverbs 16:3

 “Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!” Luke 12:24 – Luke 12:24

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