It’s not your imagination that people affected by alcohol addiction have difficulty making good choices and finding ways to resolve problems. Maybe you want help for yourself and you know that somehow your emotions and frustrations bear a direct relationship to your substance abuse. Possibly you are the parent or spouse of a problem drinker whose decision-making skills and emotions are all over the place.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) tells us that 75 percent of adults who have enrolled in addiction treatment programs had their first substance abuse experience when they were teenagers. Taking that statistic from the opposite end of the spectrum, 40 percent of teenagers who begin drinking at age 15 will become alcoholics. Of those who delay drinking until the age of 21, on the other hand, only 7 percent of them will succumb to alcohol addiction.
Those figures are not mirror images of one another for a couple reasons. Many people who need treatment never reach out for it, because they fail to recognize that they need it or because they lack access to it for one reason or another.
How Alcohol Addiction Affects the Teenage Brain
Dr. Merrill Norton of the University of Georgia has spent years studying prevention of alcoholism. According to Norton, the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which controls judgment, decision-making, planning, and impulse control, does not finish developing until a person reaches his mid-twenties. The years between ages 16 and 24 are vital in the development of those skills and also in the brain’s manufacture of dendrites, which transport messages and nerve impulses between brain cells as a person goes through learning experiences.
Many teens and young adults find little interference if they decide to try alcohol and drugs because parents often relax restrictions once their children become old enough to drive and get jobs. If those teens keep using alcohol their continued use will actually halt the brain’s emotional development. If a teenager does not stop using alcohol before the age of 24, roughly when the prefrontal cortex reaches the end of its development, there will always be a struggle with emotional development, well-reasoned choices, and the ability to delay gratification.
Those high school and college students grow into adults who simply make poor decisions as they move through life. They struggle with adult relationships including marriage because they lack the emotional maturity to hold up their end of the partnership. If they become parents, their children are more likely than other people’s children to carry on a cycle of alcoholism.
Therapies That Help
The first recommendation for turning this around, of course, is to consider whether your drinking could be affecting a youngster in your home. If you are parenting a young adult who drinks regularly, get them into alcohol addiction treatment in order to heal the effects of alcohol not only on the body but also on the brain. Remember that help can be effective even as the person moves through their twenties.
If you are the one using alcohol, it’s time to get into treatment without delay. Even if you manage to attend work or college classes regularly, what seems to you like just a few drinks can be dangerous, especially if those few drinks happen frequently.
Licensed, certified counselors understand that techniques like motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral therapy can help a person improve their decision-making skills. While the brain’s prefrontal cortex may never regain what it lost, activities such as yoga, exercise, art classes, relaxation techniques, and even meditation can help a person improve their approach to life. Take a test to see if you are a problem drinker, and then call your neighborhood treatment program for help.