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What Drinking as a Teenager Does to Their Brain

For people who consume alcohol, their first exposure to drinking usually occurs way before they turn 21. In fact, a large chunk of people experiment with drinking as a teenager, before they even graduate from high school.

In some cultures, it’s seen almost as a rite of passage – the raucous high school parties where kids get drunk for the first time and puke in the bushes while unsuspecting (or uncaring) parents are away.

We know that safety is a big concern around teenage drinking. Drunk driving accidents, violence, sexual assault, and alcohol poisoning are front of mind. But we also need to talk about the impact of alcohol on the developing teenage brain.

There are serious consequences that can impact teens later in life. We’re going to discuss them and give parents ideas for how to talk to their teens about the unseen impact of alcohol on their lives.

Brain Chemistry and Binge Drinking in Teens

Teenagers are more likely to binge drink when their brain chemistry is altered. This is due to the fact that their prefrontal cortex isn’t completely developed.

The prefrontal cortex controls decision-making, judgment, and impulse control. Alcohol can damage the development of the prefrontal cortex, which is especially devastating in teens.

When a teenager binge drinks, their brain is flooded with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with pleasure. When too much dopamine is released, it can cause the individual to feel out of control and euphoric. This can lead to the teenager drinking more alcohol and taking other risks.

Binge drinking can also cause the release of norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is a hormone that is associated with stress and anxiety. When too much is released, it can make the teenager feel paranoid and scared.

Alcohol can also interfere with the production of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is associated with mood and happiness. When alcohol interferes with the production of serotonin, it can cause the teenager to feel depressed and anxious. These mood swings can increase the risk of suicide in teenagers.

four boys sitting outside of a shop, smiling at the camera
Protecting your kids from the effects of drinking as a teenager

Is drinking dangerous for teens?

Yes, it’s incredibly dangerous.

All of the aforementioned neurotransmitters play a role in the development of the brain. When alcohol interferes with their production, it can have long-term consequences on the teenager’s brain. This can increase the risk of developing a substance use disorder later in life.

Drinking is also dangerous for teens because it can increase the risk of accidents and injuries. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States. Alcohol is involved in almost half of all car crash fatalities among teenagers.

Teens that drink are more likely to have unprotected sex and contract STDs. And of course, unprotected sex can also lead to teenage pregnancies.

The science behind the effects of alcohol on the adolescent brain

As we just mentioned, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed in teenagers. So when a teenager consumes alcohol, the alcohol will have a more profound effect on their brain than it would on an adult.

Neuroscientist, Dr. Marisa M. Silveri, has conducted extensive research out of McLean Hospital on the impact of alcohol in teens’ brains.

Her work has uncovered some staggering findings, which we’ll break down briefly here.

  • Binge drinking in younger people leads to reduced levels of GABA in the prefrontal lobe. This is the part of the brain that deals with cognitive functioning, decision-making, and reduced impulsiveness.
  • Adolescents are less sensitive to some of the impairing effects of alcohol, like sleepiness or loss of motor control. Without these physical cues, it is more difficult for young people to know when they’ve had too much.
  • Low GABA levels + binge drinking = long-term impairment and increased risk of substance abuse disorder later in life.

Areas of the Brain Affected by Alcohol

Let’s further break down alcohol’s impact on the various parts of the brain and why it’s so problematic for teenagers. And, if you’re up for it, here’s a kid-friendly version that covers the same topic.

Hippocampus

The hippocampus is responsible for memory and learning. Alcohol can damage the hippocampus, which can lead to memory loss and learning disabilities.

Cerebellum

Studies have shown that adolescent drinking shrinks the amount of gray matter in the cerebellum subregion known as Crus II. This part of the brain is used for social cognition. It’s the part of the brain we use to process other people’s actions and motivations as well as our own.

Basal Ganglia

The basal ganglia is responsible for motivation and reward. Alcohol can damage the basal ganglia, which can lead to a loss of motivation and an increase in the risk of developing a substance use disorder.

Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making, judgment, and impulse control. Alcohol can damage the prefrontal cortex, which can lead to poor judgment and impulsiveness. This is particularly bad for teens as their frontal cortex is not yet fully developed.

Damage to this part of the brain, while it’s still developing, can lead to long-term problems well into adulthood.

Thalamus

The thalamus is responsible for filtering information, essentially translating the neural impulses from various receptors to the cerebral cortex. Alcohol can damage the thalamus, which can lead to a person feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

Warning Signs of Underage Drinking

Now that we know some of the dangers of alcohol consumption for teenagers, what are some warning signs that a teenager might be drinking?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as different kids will exhibit different warning signs. However, some general warning signs that a teenager might be drinking alcohol include:

  • Acting secretive or unusually defiant
  • Sudden changes in mood or behavior
  • Falling grades or loss of interest in schoolwork
  • Isolating themselves from friends and family
  • Poor hygiene or a general deterioration in appearance
  • A sudden interest in alcohol, often displayed by attempting to buy it, or being caught with alcohol on their person
  • Suffering from blackouts or memory lapses

If you notice any of these signs in your teenager, it’s important to talk to them about it and get them the help they need.


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Preventing Underage Drinking

Preventing underage drinking is extremely challenging. For one, teens and young adults often have a diminished sense of mortality. To be blunt, they think they’re invincible and are inclined to downplay the risks of their behavior.

Secondly, parents and caregivers may struggle to connect with their teens on this topic. Anyone who has parented a teen knows that communication is tough at this age. Trying to have open and honest conversations about something serious like alcohol, drugs, or sex is really hard. Don’t worry if it’s awkward or you feel like you are stumbling. It’s important, and you can do this.

Thirdly, there’s a lot of peer pressure and cultural messaging that pushes teens and young adults to experiment with drugs and alcohol at ages where they are truly unequipped to handle either.

So what are we to do?

Tips for Preventing Teens and Young Adults from Risky Drinking

If you’re not sure where to start, I’ve provided some tips for getting the conversation going. Of course, you know your teen best. Some of these strategies may be more effective than others. Choose what feels right for you and your family.

two teens pouring beer into solo cups
talking to your teens about alcohol

1. Talk openly and honestly with your teen about the dangers of drinking alcohol.

Make sure they understand that the risks are real and that there is no such thing as a “safe” amount of alcohol to consume at their age.

Additionally, avoid the urge to punish your child or police their curiosity about drinking. The reality is they are dealing with temptation and need you to guide them.

They won’t come to you or be honest if they feel like they’ll get in trouble for admitting to trying alcohol or wanting to. Your child needs to follow your rules, but you also want them to talk to you if they make a mistake.

It’s a delicate balance to strike.

2. Connect with your teen on a personal level.

Discuss why you don’t want them to drink alcohol and ask them about their own thoughts and feelings on the matter. Let them know that you’re there for them, no matter what.

3. Promote healthy alternatives to drinking.

Be available to your kids and encourage them to try new things. Allow your teen to explore hobbies. Be supportive of their interests.

Teens especially are looking for ways to form connections with their peers and do meaningful things. Whether that looks like giving them a ride to and from practice or taking them to competitions, just being there and prioritizing their interests is important.

This is an extremely important time in their development. Teens are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in in the grand scheme of things. Making an effort to nurture that is important. Establishing a strong sense of self and identity can help fortify them against peer pressure to engage in risky behavior.

4. Be a good role model.

If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation, and never allow yourself to get drunk in front of your kids. If you catch your kids sneaking alcohol from your stash, get rid of it.

5. Keep an open dialogue with other parents and educators in your community.

Work together to create a safe and supportive environment for your teens. Do what you can to advocate for student programs and activities your teens are interested in. Talk to other parents, too. There is strength in numbers. How can you proactively work to keep your kids away from drinking?

6. Seek professional help if you feel like you’re struggling to keep your teen from drinking.

There is no shame in admitting that you need help and seeking guidance from a qualified addiction specialist or family therapist, depending on the circumstances.

Here’s the thing, your teen is going to become a young adult before you know it. This is a valuable time in their life and one of the best opportunities you have to instill strong values around drinking and drugs.

Have difficult conversations now so they are prepared to handle risky situations that may arise in college or straight out of high school.

Helping Teens Navigate The Pressure To Drink

First, let me say that I understand how hard this is and what you’re up against. I taught middle school for 14 years and saw the types of pressures our kids are under. Even though my own daughter is still small, I know all this conversation is coming sooner than I’d like.

Plus, in a lot of ways, we’ve become conditioned to just accept that our teens are going to drink, party, and get drunk. Some parents even facilitate it.

There were a few houses where I grew up that were “party houses.” The parents didn’t care what we did. Some even justified it by saying, “At least when they’re here, I know what they’re doing.”

But I reject all that, and I hope you have the confidence to do that, too. Why? Because I know how crucial these years are for kids developmentally and socially. If we’re going to teach kids to be strong, independent-minded people who care about their future, this is a good place to start!

So let’s talk about what they might look like!

1. Emphasize the Importance of Individuality

Help your teenager understand the value of being true to themselves and not succumbing to negative peer influences. Encourage them to embrace their unique qualities and interests, fostering a strong sense of self-identity.

This is a really hard time for kids and drinking is one of the ways they try to escape from it. Helping them embrace who they are and build confidence is a strong antidote to peer pressure.

Foster Positive Friendships:

Encourage your teen to build friendships with like-minded peers who prioritize responsible behaviors. One way you can do this is by encouraging and letting them get involved in activities that will connect with them kids who have similar goals and outlooks.

Set Clear Expectations and Boundaries:

Establish clear rules and expectations regarding alcohol use. Discuss the consequences of breaking these rules while ensuring they feel comfortable discussing any challenges they face. You want to equip your teen with the confidence to steer clear of bad situations with alcohol, but if they do end up somewhere they shouldn’t be, you also want them to feel able to call you to come get them.

Educate Them on the Risks:

This is a hard one. I’ll just start off by stating the obvious. The last thing most teenagers want is to listen to the ole “don’t drink and do drugs talk” from mom and/or dad. But we have to do it, and one way is to start instilling in them from young all of the risks associated with alcohol.

Plus there are plenty of sober celebrities they probably find much cooler than you who can also articulate why alcohol is bad. Get creative! But don’t let the inevitable awkwardness and eye rolls keep you from trying.

Teach Assertiveness Skills:

Help your teenager develop assertiveness skills to resist negative influences. Teach them how to express their opinions and stand up for their choices confidently. We have to model for our kids how to stand up for themselves and confidently assert themselves with peers, even if it’s going against the grain. Model this for them and reward it when you see it.

For example, let’s say your teen has friends over and one of them makes an off-color remark about another kid. Your teen checks them on it confidently and you overhear it from the other room. When the friends leave, give them some praise.

“Hey, I overheard what you said to X about that comment he made and honestly, I’m really proud of you. It’s not easy to call out friends but you did. A lot of adults don’t even have the maturity to do what you did.”

Know Their Friends:

This one is so important, but please take time to get to know your kid’s friends and their families. I cannot stress how important this is. You’re not going to love all of them, but what you don’t want is your teen hanging around bad influences or in houses where the parents could not care less what the kids are doing.

This is another tough one. Sometimes the more we dislike a friend, the more it draws our teens toward them. That’s why all of these other components are key. The stronger our communication and relationship with our teens, the more they’ll respect our perspective on who they’re hanging out with.

That’s why striking that oh-so-delicate balance between approachability and being the one setting boundaries is key. And you’re probably going to get it wrong a few times. That’s okay. None of this is easy, but our kids are worth it!

Resources for Parents

If you’re not sure where to start, here are some tools you can use to speak to your teen about drinking.

Underage drinking statistics

According to the CDC, underage drinking remains a big problem in the United States. Here are some useful facts and trends from the 2019 Youth Behavior Risk Survey.

  • 29% of high school students reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days
  • 14% of students binge drank
  • 5% of students drove drunk
  • 17% of students rode in a car with a driver who had been drinking
  • Although drinking rates among high schoolers are declining, the rate of female high schoolers who are drinking is actually increasing.
  • Teens who are around adults who binge drink are 12% more likely to drink while underage.
  • 90% of underage drinkers binge drink (drink get to drunk)

What Drinking as a Teenager Does to Their Development

Research has shown that teens who drink alcohol are at higher risk of

  • Failing or dropping out of school
  • Developing learning problems
  • Getting suspended/expelled
  • Losing friends
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Abusing alcohol in adulthood

Drinking as a teenager can impact the normal development of their brain which impacts their ability to think, use good judgment, retain information, and regulate their moods. Many teens (and adults too) believe that once the hangover wears off, that’s the worst of the impact.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Long after the hangover subsides, you will still be dealing with changes to your brain chemistry.

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