Alcohol Use and Teen Thinking

According to the 2012 Illinois Youth Survey, 63% of our local 12th grade students self-report they drank alcohol in the last year. To some this number might seem high. To others, it may seem low. What we all know is that alcohol use among high school students is not something new.

Reflecting back, I remember my graduating class in 1990 chose to be remembered like this:

Party Hearty, Rock-N-Roll

Drink Bacardi, Smoke a Bowl

Beer is Awesome, Sex is Mighty

We’re the class of 1990

Hmmmm… Not a lot to be proud of there… I sure didn’t write it but it tells you a bit about teen perception and makes me even more intrigued by how the young mind thinks.

During the adolescent years there is so much pressure to “appear cool.” A recent article in National Geographic looked at how the teen brain operates. In it, the author suggests teens actually “court risk” more than at any other time in life and view risk and reward differently than adults.

What is key in understanding the way teens think and act is the knowledge that the risk vs. reward equation varies by situation and is dependent on who a teen is with. This is quite different than adults. Adults tend to weigh risk and reward the same regardless of who is witnessing the behavior.

This article went on to share studies conducted with teens driving in what the authors refer to as emotionally “cool” situations where no one else in present. In these situations, teens take risks at the same rate as adults. However, the situation changes when you add stakes the teens care about. The studies (conducted on driving simulators) showed teens take twice as many risks when the teen’s friends are brought into the room to watch. The adults, meanwhile, drove no differently with a friend watching.

How do scientists account for these differences? Brain development! When you look at brain scans you can clearly see that teen brains are still under construction. Development proceeds from back to front. From basic functioning-vision, hearing, movement to more complicated thinking-decision making, impulse control, goal setting in the front. Full brain development is reportedly not complete until the mid-twenties.

You can imagine what this means for alcohol use and driving under the influence for teens. Between the ages of 15 and 25 more young people die from accidents of almost every kind than at any other stage of life. Most long-term drug and alcohol abuse starts during adolescence, and even people who later drink responsibly often drink too much as teens.

Should we as parents, aunts, uncles, and friends simply close our eyes and hope this developmental period passes quickly and without harm? I wish that would work but the truth is silence and ignorance are not the friend of teens in need of a little direction until there brains are ready to take on the full job.

You can understand the challenge. When a person insists, “My child, friend, niece…would never do that…”, they might be correct in some situations. However, tip the scale and the reward (as perceived by a teen) might become such that some surprising and dangerous actions result.

It is sometimes a hard line to walk in helping or hindering development as teens become adults. We don’t want to be overly restrictive or too trusting. If you are a caregiver for a teen or play an influential role:

Talk with Your Teen

  • Frequently talk AND LISTEN to your teen about how things are going in their life.  Try to find time to talk and really connect with them every day.
  • Use “teachable moments” to raise alcohol issues.  Use public service announcements, stories on the news, TV plot lines, pop culture or current issues at school or in the community to spur on conversation.
  • Let your teen know you disapprove of any youth use of alcohol. Research indicates, 83% of youth ages 10-18 years old, cite parents as the leading influence in their decision to not drink at all, or not to drink on occasion.
  • Be clear and focus on the risks of alcohol use on your teen’s health and safety.  Let your teen know you love them and don’t want anything bad to happen to them.
  • When going out, know the friends they will be with and what they will be doing, and intervene in some way if an upcoming event or situation may be dangerous.

We can’t speed up brain development but we can make sure they are aware of the risks. That way, when they are weighing risk vs. reward they are better prepared to figure out the equation


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