Coping With Secondhand Drinking | Drugging as a Young Person Can Cause a Young Person to Wire Unhealthy Coping Skills

Secondhand Drinking | Drugging – when a young person is “forced” to cope with a family member’s ongoing drinking or drugging behaviors, it can actually change how that young person’s brain wires. This, in turn, means it can actually change that young person’s life.

Impacts of Coping With Secondhand Drinking | Drugging

In previous posts, such as: “How Teens Can Become Alcoholics Before Age 21,” I’ve written about how the brain’s developmental processes from ages 12 – 25 make a person’s brain especially vulnerable to developing a problem with alcohol abuse, even alcoholism.

The same is true of wiring coping skills for dealing with a family member’s substance abuse and/or substance addiction (alcohol or drugs); in other words, wiring skills to cope with secondhand drinking/drugging (SHDD) — coping skills such as those developed to “handle” a loved one’s verbal, physical or emotionally abusive drinking behaviors. Examples of these kinds of SHDD coping skills include retreating inside one’s mind or physically when confronted with abusive or scary drinking behaviors; carrying pent up, explosive rage that spills out in other situations because it cannot be expressed to the person abusively drinking/drugging for safety reasons; attempts to be especially “good” to make up for or “fix” the problem; or ….

When a person, especially a young person, does not understand drinking behaviors as a consequence of brain changes (and in the case of addiction, a brain disease) caused by the substance abuse, they think “it” (the behaviors) are their loved ones. Thus, they think their loved one’s behaviors are something they have to accommodate or thwart or believe, because, after all, it is their loved one! So they internalize — wire — coping skills to respond to the drinking behaviors.

As you’ve also likely read on this blog, the brain embeds brain maps (neurons talking to one another to produce a particular activity) for everything we think, feel, say and do — including how we cope with SHDD. The brain is especially vulnerable to how it wires these coping skills during the development that occurs from ages 12-25 — the time of brain maturity shown in the image below, a time-lapse of brain imaging studies reprinted with permission from Dr. Paul Thompson of UCLA’s Laboratory of Neuro Imaging.

Brain development occurring ages 12-25 makes a young person especially vulnerable to wiring unhealthy coping skills that they will carry throughout their life, unless and until, they understand that substance abuse / addiction causes brain changes and the resulting behaviors are not a reflection of them (the young person), they are the result of those brain changes that cause the drinking behaviors (further described in the “related posts” listed below).

Coping With Secondhand Drinking | Drugging as a Young Person Can Cause a Young Person to Wire Unhealthy Coping Skills

The developmental brain changes occurring between ages 12-25 referenced above are related to:

1) Puberty. Puberty triggers new hormonal and physical changes, as well as new neural networks.

2) Continued development of the cerebral cortex (front area) — the “thinking” part of the brain. This involves neural networks wiring within the Cerebral Cortex — the idea of learning calculus vs. memorizing multiplication tables, for example. It also involves neural networks in the Cerebral Cortex writing to those in other areas of the brain — the idea of controlling emotions, which originate in the Limbic System, with logical thought, which originates in the Cerebral Cortex, for example.

3) “Pruning” and “strengthening” of neural networks. Pruning is when neural connections (i.e., brain cells talking to one another) that are not used or are redundant fall away (get “pruned”), and those that are used get strengthened, which makes the remaining neural connections more efficient (similar to the way an insulted cable wire works more efficiently than a non-insulated one). This concept is explained in more detail at The Partnership ror Drug-Free Kids video, The Science of the Teen Brain.


Bottom Line

Everything we think, feel, say and do is determined by our brain’s wiring (brain cells talking to one another). Helping young people understand SHDD as the cause of a loved one’s drinking behaviors (behaviors caused by changes in the brain caused by substance misuse) AND helping them develop coping skills to deal with SHDD is critical and a much needed addition to any substance abuse education or intervention program. Check out these related posts: Protecting Yourself From Secondhand Drinking and Secondhand Drinking Prevention.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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