April 23, 2013 — As a teenager I didn’t realize or really care about what alcohol was going to do to me. I just wanted to drink it all down. My anger, angst and naiveté got the better of me. Sure, I could have died from alcohol poisoning but this was my intro to adolescence and I leapt into it with abandon. Not until years later and more than a few therapy sessions did I begin to put together this tapestry of my rebellion and pain.
According to alcohol-information.com, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) found that teenagers who drink before they turned 15 were more likely by four times to develop an alcohol dependency than those who started drinking at age 21. It was determined that the earlier a person drinks, the more unintentionally irresponsible they may be with the alcohol.
To define this period of time we turn to renowned specialist Dr. William Peltz who writes “In the normal adolescent, one see’s these deviations: Restlessness, confusion, and impatience. They show a lack of stability with fluctuating enthusiasms and intense infatuations. Laziness, forgetfulness, and inconsistency fit within the framework of adolescence. There is aggressive self-assertion with desire for independence on the one hand and ever-present dependency on the other.
They desire privileges but so frequently appear to lack a sense of obligation and responsibility. There are high ideals one moment and outrageous behavior in the next. They frequently have feelings of isolation and of not being understood. They have truly colorful daydreams and fantasies, all of which belong to this developmental period.” This definition about sums up what it means to be a teenager.
Adolescents operate from a different part of their brains than fully formed adults. The human brain does not fully mature until the age of 24. During adolescence, there is an enormous pruning back of the millions of dendrites that whips up the brain and reorganizes brain functions. The brain also initiates sexual maturity in the body, creating a maelstrom of fluctuating hormonal levels.
Enormous numbers of neuronal connections in the grey matter and corpus collosum are shut down in kids ages 7 to 17. The grey matter that’s being re-wired is the cerebral cortex, the site of cognitive and motor functions. The corpus collosum is like a thoroughfare that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This pruning that begins at the back of the brain, and then moves forward during adolescence and controls the prefrontal cortex, responsible for judgment and impulse control but matures last.
It is suspected that the excess of synapses means the young adolescent mind can’t easily keep track of multiple thoughts, and it can’t gain access to critical memories and emotions that allow grown-ups to make sensible decisions. However, even without adult judgment, the dendritic pruning taking place throughout adolescence results in a brain (and body) that has faster reaction times, better memory, and increased speed in learning, as compared to adults. In other words, when teens think they’re smarter than their parents, it’s because they actually are, at least in some ways. They also feel immortal, like nothing can hurt them, which causes them to be heedless.
It’s no wonder that the military stocks the front lines with teens. They are not afraid of death. At the same time teens stop identifying with their parents and shift to other teenagers and/or pop stars. This means that teens are heavily influenced by their peer group which may not be good for them. This heady mix of hormones and wildly careening emotions sends some teens into a tail spin of wildly out of control behavior.
Here is where alcohol poisoning and excessive drinking, smoking and drugs can come in.
Because teens are so heedless and feel that nothing can actually harm them they take risks that adults would not act on. Drinking binges in high school and college are not uncommon especially with children who were heavily controlled or emotionally wounded young people who are in pain. Family risk factors for teenagers developing drinking problems stem from the lack of parental supervision or communication, family conflicts, inconsistent or severe parental discipline, and a family history of alcohol or drug abuse. The risk factors may include difficulties regulating impulses, emotional instability, thrill-seeking behaviors, and thinking that the risk of using alcohol is low.
Teens who begin drinking prior to 14 years of age and those whose mothers and fathers have emotional problems, are more likely to develop alcoholism. Teen risk factors for alcoholism differ a bit between the 14- to 16-year-old and 16- to 18-year-old age groups, in that 16- to 18-year-olds tend to be less likely to drink in excess when they have a close relationship with their parents.
As the years have passed since my foray into drinking at age 14, I realize that much of it had to do with my state of mind and my emotional well being. I think that my alcohol and later drug use were essentially pain medications. We got drunk to drown the negative voices, to steady our out of control feelings and to numb our internal pain. Otherwise a glass of wine with dinner would suffice. Many years later I can see where it all came from and think more wisely about my health and my life to come. Teens have no such perspective; they can only react to a hormonal tsunami and all they really know to do is to head out on the emotional highway and look for adventure in whatever comes their way.
Dr. Bill Cloke has worked with individuals and couples for 30 years. He received a master’s degree in education from the University of Southern California and holds a PhD in psychology from California Graduate Institute. A frequent talk-radio and TV psychologist, he is also a contributor to PsychologyToday.com and other popular websites and has lectured at UCLA. Bill Cloke lives with his wife in Los Angeles. To learn more about Bill Cloke, and for more resources on creating healthy, happy relationships, visit happytogetherbook.com.