While some teens limit their experimentation to hobbies, trying out for theater and then jumping into basketball instead, other teens begin to experiment with drugs and alcohol. While they may begin this use voluntarily, the changes the brain goes through as a result of the abuse may develop into a drug addiction. In other words, the teen may have control over whether he or she begins using substances, but once that use has taken hold, it can be difficult or impossible for that teen to stop use without help.
Addiction and the Brain
A discussion of addiction must begin with a short anatomy lesson regarding the brain. This organ does more than create memories and help to solve problems. There are portions of the brain that work on a subconscious level, driving a person’s desires, hopes and urges. This limbic system in the brain uses many different sorts of chemicals, but one important chemical is known as dopamine. This neurotransmitter is released in response to, or in anticipation of, a pleasurable event. The scent of soup simmering on the stove, the sound of a loved one’s voice or the feel of grass beneath the feet can all cause dopamine releases. The person may not know why he/she feels so happy, but often, dopamine is the cause of this surge.
Most drugs of abuse tap directly into this pathway. In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drugs can cause the brain to release two to 10 times the amount of dopamine, compared to the release it would send in response to standard rewards. The feeling of pleasure can be overwhelming, and hard to forget.
As the abuse continues, the brain begins to adjust to the flood of dopamine by producing less of its own dopamine and/or turning off receptors for dopamine. The brain is attempting to reestablish a balance, but that tweaking can have unintended consequences. Without drugs, the person’s brain is not functioning properly. The person may feel low and sad, irritable and distressed without the drugs. According to an article published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, the brain might respond to the lack of drugs by releasing chemicals associated with stress, trying to push the person back into accessing drugs. The brain has become so adjusted to drugs that it reacts with alarm when those drugs are gone.
The adolescent brain might be more susceptible to these sorts of changes. During adolescence, the brain is growing and changing, building new connections between the midbrain and the forebrain and increasing in bulk and density. As a result, the brain is particularly susceptible to learning new information, and making permanent changes as a result of those lessons. A study published in the journal Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior found that parts of the adolescent brain reacted so strongly to drug abuse that they developed permanent, structural changes that, in the words of the authors, “… in a sense, ‘fix’ the addictive behavior in the adolescent and young adult brain.” Adolescence is a particularly dangerous time for teens to use and abuse substances.
Moving Past Biology
Addiction may have its roots in biology and persistent changes in the brain, but the behaviors that walk alongside the addiction can also be enforcing in their own right. It’s a relatively easy concept to understand.
For example, many adults cannot start the day unless they’ve had a cup of coffee in their favorite mug. They may be addicted to the caffeine, of course, but they may also be somewhat addicted to holding a warm and steaming mug between their cold fingers in the morning. The behavior is just as addictive as the substance.Teens may have all sorts of these habits that reinforce their addictions. A few examples include:
- Their friends. Teens may surround themselves with others who also abuse drugs and alcohol.
- Their social lives. They may go to parties where drugs are taken, or they may habitually skip class to take drugs with friends.
- Their music. Some musicians glamorize a life of drugs and alcohol, and teens may tap into these messages repeatedly.
- Their own daily rituals. Some teens become accustomed to taking drugs at specific times of day, such as when they awaken or before they go to sleep.
All of these habits must also be addressed in order for the teen to truly heal from the addiction.
Signs and Signals
Some parents mistakenly believe that they will “just know” when their teens are abusing substances. They seem to expect a bright, flashing light that will illuminate when the teen begins to go down the wrong path. While this would be ideal, the truth is that addiction in teens can be somewhat tricky to spot. Teens are secretive, and some signs of drug and alcohol abuse can be mistaken for normal teen behavior. For example, the Nemours Foundation provides these signals of addiction in teens:
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Slipping or low grades
- Stealing or selling belongings
- Mood swings
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Weight loss or gain
Any of these signs could easily be explained away and ignored, until the problem has grown so large that it’s simply impossible to ignore. It doesn’t have to be that way. Parents who keep an open dialogue with their teens, and provide help when needed, can spot an addiction problem early and stop it from growing to such extremes. At Teen Rehab, we’d like to help. If you believe your teen has a substance abuse or behavioral issue, we can help you find the right sort of treatment program to help your teen recover. Please contact us today to find out more about the help we can provide.