Impaired brain development in teens: Signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse

Drug and alcohol use impedes normal brain development in teens and can have a long-lasting, even life-long impact, according to research.

People sometimes view teenagers’ experimentation with drugs and alcohol as a normal part of growing up and coming of age. However, research shows there is no safe level of substance use when it comes to teenagers because their brains are still developing.

Rosecrance Health Network’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Thomas Wright, a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist who works with teens undergoing treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, sheds some light on the topic.

“If abuse is caught early enough, we can encourage development of other pathways in the brain that may be helpful,” Wright said. “It’s much more difficult to change once the brain is fully mature.”

Rosecrance is a premier provider of treatment for substance abuse among teens and adults. Rosecrance offers inpatient programs in Rockford, IL, and provides free, confidential evaluations at six offices in the Chicago area.

Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse supports Wright’s observations. Brains mature from back to front, and the frontal lobe – the area of higher-level thinking and mature decision-making, isn’t fully mature until a person is about 22 or 23 years old, Wright said. Drug and alcohol use impedes normal brain development in teens and can a have long-lasting, even life-long, impact.

Parents should understand that the more primitive part of the brain may signal their teenagers to go full speed ahead in taking risks, including use of substances. Meanwhile, the rational part of the brain, the front, often lacks the maturity for healthy decision-making and restraint. Because of this natural immaturity, the teen years present the highest risk of any age period for substance abuse.

Some damage may be irreparable, Wright said, adding, “Drugs like inhalants are directly toxic to the brain and actually result in the death of cells.” Inhalants can also cause immediate death.

Signs and Symptoms of Drug Use in Teenagers

Help is available, but parents first need to know the signs and symptoms of drug use, which include:

  • Unexplained extreme mood swings
  • Fatigue with noticeable change in sleep patterns
  • Dilated pupils and bloodshot eyes
  • Loss of appetite, yet periods of binge eating
  • Changes in dress or appearance
  • Threats/attempts to commit suicide
  • Uncharacteristic nosebleeds or unexplained burns
  • Missed curfews and breaking house rules
  • Lack of interest in family activities
  • Isolation from family members/absence from home
  • Collecting alcohol or drug paraphernalia
  • Using air fresheners or breath mints to cover scents
  • Telling lies or giving unrealistic explanations of behaviors to parents
  • Tardiness, missing school or bad grades
  • Dropping out of extracurricular activities
  • Changes in friends; secret calls and visits
  • Avoiding contact with concerned adults
  • Losing interest in hobbies/activities
  • Becoming secretive and defensive
  • Avoiding introducing new friends

Parents who observe these behaviors should share their concerns with the child and seek a professional evaluation if they suspect substance abuse. It’s risky for parents to assume that drug and alcohol use is an inevitable phase, Wright emphasized.

“Parents should not turn a blind eye to it or just accept that it will happen, especially if there is a family history of substance abuse disease,” he said. “They should get the facts and decide what’s next.”

Treatment Options for Teens with drug and alcohol Abuse Issues

Many teens who meet criteria for treatment are placed in outpatient programs. If residential care is needed, it typically could last about six weeks, and follow-up care is important once the teen returns home.

Parents of teens who require residential services should look for a treatment center with evidence-based programming that recognizes the importance of academics in treatment and recovery. Academic success boosts self-esteem and supports continuing recovery.Rosecrance has a seven-classroom school onsite, and state-certified teachers help teens stay current with assignments from their home school districts. Teens who need tutoring for advanced coursework in order to maintain their standing at the home school have access to tutors from a nearby university.

If you suspect your teen is abusing drugs or alcohol, it’s time to seek a professional evaluation. Rosecrance will answer your questions and walk you through each step to get the help your family needs. Call Rosecrance at (866) 330-8729 or go to Life’s waiting.