Adolescence is a time that’s both scary and exciting. The changes that take place during adolescence bridge the gap from childhood into the teenage years, setting the stage for the adulthood that’s on the horizon.

While many of the changes that occur during adolescence are considered normal, the inclusion of drugs and alcohol into the mix can create some abnormal changes. These changes can potentially have long-lasting ramifications.

Brain Development During Adolescence

Student work hardAdolescence is synonymous with change, and a major reason for that is because of what’s going on in the brain of adolescents. All of the notable mood and personality changes that come with teenage years are a direct result of the development of the adolescent’s mind.

For example, changes in the prefrontal region of the brain are what encourage adolescents to engage in risky behavior. Enhanced development of the brain’s synapses result in an increased response time and level of knowledge.

Additionally, myelination – the development of fatty layers surrounding nerve cells that facilitates faster processing – enhances an adolescent’s cognitive abilities(1), particularly decision making and self-discipline.

The Interference of Drugs and Alcohol

Drugs and alcohol are referred to as “mind-altering” so often that it’s easy to forget how significant it is that these substances literally change the human brain. In the case of adolescents, these changes can interfere with normal development.

A study of brain development in adolescents(2) showed that marijuana use led to an increased level of gray matter in the prefrontal lobe, which is reflective of a decreased attention span. This condition is also linked with lessened verbal skills.

Furthermore, the myelination process is compromised by substance abuse, with binge drinking being the biggest culprit in the stalling of myelination. Marijuana is also responsible for a lessened level of the cognitive ability that is aided by myelination. Marijuana use also plays a factor in the diminished development of white matter, which aids in neurotransmission; a decreased white matter count is linked with depression.

How to Help

Adolescents are very protective of their developing selves. It’s up to you to look for signs that your child may be consuming illicit substances. These brain developments might not jump out at you, but if you’ve noticed change in your child’s behavior or way of thinking, the culprit may be drugs or alcohol.

student girls looking at notebook at schoolAlthough a great deal of brain development occurs during adolescence, it doesn’t mean all hope is lost if drugs or alcohol interfere with the process. With the proper treatment and support, the brain will be able to recover and develop in its usual way. However, this process cannot begin unless the individual ceases drug and alcohol use and takes steps to ensure a clean and sober life.

It’s important to always have your guard up in regard to these changes. Identifying any potential substance issues will help to get your child’s brain developing normally, giving him or her a great chance at a successful life. Professional help can teach adolescents the tools they need to avoid these substances in the future, keeping them on the path towards a bright future.