Teenagers, Their Brains, and Addiction

During adolescence, teens will often struggle with self-esteem issues. How a teen interprets their surroundings could be skewed by their inner eye and lack of experience, meaning that they might exaggerate a given situation or act in ways that suggest that actions are unforgivable or the worst experience ever. Their thoughts and interpretations from friends and outsiders might be seen through the lens of their self-doubt, thus causing them to question their self-worth.

These moods and behaviors may be typical to “just being a teenager” and growing up, but more recent studies link teenagers’ attitudes to their brain development. The brain does not finish fully developing until young adulthood (around mid-20s), so the brain processes information much differently during the teenage years than an adult. Further, if your teenager questions their self-worth often, this could cause them more agitation and even angry and reckless behavior. As a result, pressures and impulses could take over and cause them to seek instant gratification from drugs or alcohol.


When a teenager exhibits negative and reckless behavior consistently, this should be cause for concern. Research suggests that you might be misreading your teen. When the brain fully forms, adults use the prefrontal cortex to read and interpret emotional cues. However, since this part of the brain is still developing in a teen, the teen relies on the amygdala part of the brain. This portion of the brain regulates emotional responses rather than reading cues. Studies show that teens often misinterpret facial cues, and when shown a range of emotions through pictures of adults, most interpret them as being angry. This could help support why teens sometimes feel so isolated from the parental figures in their life.

Work to understand things from your teen’s perspective. Manage your stress levels, be there for your teen, and maybe most importantly, do not immediately try to solve their problem. Coming to them with advice is not always what they want. Remember, they are coming into their own, and a teenager wants to feel of age and capable of handling a situation. Being there to listen is sometimes enough to help a teen find enlightenment and perspective for their problem. By listening, you also might discover what is behind their behavior.


After decades of research, how is it that we, as a culture, continue to turn to harmful drugs and alcohol to cope with stress? Further, how does a teen know to use drugs and alcohol to combat how they are feeling? It must be learned, right? For starters, children and teens are highly impressionable; they learn from family and friends. Parents, above all, are the primary influence. Studies show that children with parents who smoke are two times as likely to begin smoking in their teenage years than children with parents who do not smoke. Certainly, what they see in their home environment influences them, but what about teens with parents who do not drink or smoke?

Addiction disorders can still occur. Many factors play into this: peer pressure, accessibility of alcohol or drugs, and normalizing certain drugs. Society often decides what drugs and drinks we can or cannot have, but this normalization is skewed because it only accounts for people who can regulate their drinking and smoking. However, for children and especially teenagers, the normalization of alcohol and now marijuana could give the illusion that these are “safe” substances to use frequently. And because it is accepted in society, they are okay doing them. It also does not account for whether your family has a history of substance abuse or whether or not your teenager has a genetic predisposition to becoming addicted.

Limit Use

Perhaps the best strategy as a parent is to limit the amount of drug and alcohol consumption around your children–this includes curbing its association with celebratory events as well as stressful situations. How you face these situations as a parent could influence your teenager to approach them the same way.

Science Encourages Abstinence

The days of associating abstinence with a slogan “Just say no” are over. These slogans, though well-intentioned, don’t lend much to why drinking and using drugs are harmful. They just claim that drugs and alcohol are bad. However, with what research has discovered about the teen brain, when things are presented as “bad,” they might be interpreted as somewhat of a risk and reward in a teen’s eyes. And because the act of drinking and using drugs offers an immediate response to alleviating how they feel, they might not foresee the dangers. However, educating a teenager on how their brain functions and how alcohol and drugs can cause severe mental disorders to develop, such as dementia, schizophrenia, and depression, could be a way in which to curb the number of teenagers willing to try a drink or drug.

Teens are more susceptible to stress. Teens read emotional cues differently. Teens are more prone to developing bad habits. You can support them by designing practices that promote good mental health, exercise, diet, and meditation–and try to cut down or eliminate drinking or smoking. Show your teen that you are motivated and take this seriously. The “Do as I say, not as I do” approach does not cut it for a teenager. They need leadership, and the earlier you begin, the better they might be at defeating temptation later on. If you are still unable to get through to your teen and fear they are destroying their future with drinking and using drugs, it is time to get help.

True Recovery offers 24/7 care and is sensitive and understanding to the needs of you and your teenager. True Recovery never stops seeking the best alternative treatment for prevention and recovery. True Recovery is also motivated to find the best care to suit your teenager’s needs. You do not have to do this alone. To learn more, call us today at (866) 399-6528.