In regards to substance use and abuse, the adolescent population faces unique challenges in comparison to the adult using population. The body and brain structures are still developing during the adolescence and young adult periods in our lifespan. Because drugs and alcohol can impact growth as well as the structures and chemistry of the brain, the effects of these changes in adolescents can be maladaptive and last into adulthood. This article will examine these changes in detail along with treatment options specifically geared towards this population.
Research has shown that the brain does not fully develop until a person reaches their mid-twenties. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain which develops last and is part of the brain responsible for both judgment and decision making processes. Adolescence also marks the period of time when the brain starts to become more efficient and specialized through synaptic refinement, especially in the pre-frontal cortex as well as the limbic system which regulates emotion. An adolescents’ use and subsequent abuse of substances alter these important brain structures which aren’t fully formed.
For those adolescents who abuse alcohol, for example, there is decreased memory capacity, attention and executive functioning (decision making, emotion control). There are also deficits in language development, decreased inhibition processing and problem solving seen in adolescents who abuse alcohol. In the case of marijuana, there are long term impacts on working memory and overall cognitive functioning. While the developing brain in adolescence may be most resilient to the toxic events of drugs and alcohol, continued heavy use of substances can alter both the brain structure and chemistry and its effects can be seen through adulthood.
Socially, adolescence is a time of increased peer pressure. During this time period, adolescents may use drugs to improve mood or receive some form of social reward. Young people may also use and subsequently abuse drugs to reduce or escape negative feelings and to avoid social rejection. Young people will copy what peers do in order to feel accepted or are just curious on how drugs and alcohol effect their mood and behavior. Familial values and history, both nuclear and extended, can also play a substantial role in the attitudes and use patterns centering on drugs and alcohol.
In regards to substance abuse treatment for adolescents, family-centered therapy and counseling is seen as ideal since teens reflect what the adult figures in their lives are doing and are a product of their history. Family-based interventions not only work on the immediate problem of the adolescents’ substance abuse issues, but it addresses the maladaptive elements within the family dynamic in order to strengthen those foundations. Treatment interventions, in whatever combination of medical and therapeutic domains, are dictated by the degree of substance abuse along with familial, environmental and cultural background of that individual.