This year, I am focusing on Underage Drinking Prevention in celebration of SAMHSA’s National Prevention Week 2013 – “Your voice. Your choice. Make a Difference.”
SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) is the sponsoring organization for this national celebration and, as usual, has created an arsenal of resources and toolkit materials for each of the five days in this week-long celebration, which has been organized as follows:
May 13 – Prevention and Cessation of Tobacco Use
May 14 – Prevention of Underage Drinking
May 15 – Prevention of Prescription Drug Abuse and Illicit Drug Use
May 16 – Suicide Prevention
May 17 – Promotion of Mental, Emotional and Behavioral Well-Being
While each and every one of these is of equal importance, I’m choosing to focus on Prevention of Underage Drinking in this post because of the significant impacts alcohol (or drugs) can have on the developing brain – the brain from ages 12 – early 20s.
And why is this focus on prevention because of alcohol’s (or drugs’) impact on the developing brain so important? It’s to give a young person’s brain a break – meaning to give their brain every opportunity to develop to its healthiest potential.
Two Things to Know About the Developing Brain in order to Build Support for Underage Drinking Prevention
Little did we know until the Decades of the Brain (1990s) and Discovery (2000s) that the brain could take until age 25 to fully develop. Little did we know that the kinds of brain developmental activities that occur from ages 12 – early 20s, often through 25, explain why teens do the things they do (seek risks, not consider potentially negative outcomes, for example) and why alcohol and/or drug abuse can be so problematic for young people’s brains.
Puberty and the Brain – It’s More Complicated Than We Thought
In my decade of research and writing on brain development and the brain disease of addiction, understanding the whole story about puberty and the brain’s evolution [see Image 2 in Understanding the Teen Brain – “What Were You Thinking?”] gave me the pieces that finally completed the puzzle on how/why teens do the things they do and how/why their peers are so influential and why all of this is so instrumental in the development of substance abuse problems. [Note: alcoholism is one of the brain diseases of addiction.]
If you are a parent, you know what I’m talking about. When your child is around 10 – 11, they still want to be around you, turn to you for comfort and guidance, talk to you about their day and may even still give you big hugs and take your hand. But then puberty arrives, and everyone’s world feels as if it turns upside down. And that’s because it does.
Back in the day – way back in the day – man’s average lifespan was about 25 years. [Sometimes it helps to think of man as but one of the species that make up our world.] The portions of the brain that were most used were the cerebellum – the “motor control” portion of the brain, where the neural networks that control breathing, heartbeat, movement are found, and the Limbic System – the “reactionary” portion of the brain, where the neural networks that control pleasure/reward, fight-or-flight, pain and emotion are found. It wasn’t until much, much later in man’s existence that the cerebral cortex (which includes the prefrontal cortex) – the “thinking” part of the brain, where the neural networks that control reasoning, judgment, motivation, perception, memory and learning are found, evolved into what it is, today. [See Image in Understanding the Teen Brain – “What Were You Thinking?”]
Thus the neural network wiring to take risk and turn to one’s peers is going strong once puberty begins – necessary for the species to get out of the cave, reproduce and care for self and off spring because Mom and Dad were dead (remember, average lifespan was 25 years, thus when a child reached puberty around age 12, their parents were gone and no longer available to gather food or protect their young). Not until the brain evolved – and today develops – to include the cerebral cortex neural network wiring does a person have the “brakes” for their risk taking behaviors and the complex reasoning skills of an adult to fully think through the consequences of opportunities and actions before they are taken.
For more on this…
Addiction is a Developmental Disease and Often Begins in Adolescence Because of the Neural Network Wiring That Is Occurring at That Time
People are not born drug addicts or alcoholics. Addiction is a developmental disease, thus preventing it where it starts is critical.
And it starts with substance abuse. A person has to abuse the substance (drugs or alcohol) in order to set up the chemical and structural brain changes that can lead to addiction.
Substance abuse is what makes one brain more susceptible to the five key risk factors for developing an addiction, although the brain changes associated with substance abuse are problematic enough (drinking behaviors causing secondhand drinking, for example). These risk factors include: genetics, social environment, early use, mental illness and childhood trauma. Note that “early use” is one of the key risk factors and that is because of the brain developmental changes that occur from 12 – 25.
Part of prevention of underage drinking and drug use, therefore, should include answers to questions, such as: “Why?” “What is it about the brain that makes addiction happen in adolescence?” “Why is addiction considered a brain disease?” “Why does waiting to drink alcohol until after age 21 help?”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has a great website for teens, NIDA for Teens: Facts on Drugs. This site is an excellent resource for parents, teachers and adults who work with and/or are raising teens. Here are a few links you’ll find there:
Of course not all young people who abuse substances become addicts | alcoholics. That’s been proven time and again, and for many adults, it’s been proven by their own early substance use patterns now changed to fall within low-risk limits. But helping young people make the most of their brains (and avoid potentially life-shattering outcomes, such as a car accident, or causing secondhand drinking for others) is reason enough to support the prevention of underage drinking. [And for more on the life-shattering consequences of Secondhand Drinking | Drugging, check out: Secondhand Drinking | Drugging: Understand | Treat | Prevent.]
So what can we do differently? How do we change the conversations around underage drinking prevention? In my work with youth, parents, at-risk teens and teachers over the past several years, it’s been the sharing and use of this brain science, the facts of secondhand drinking AND a full discussion of what “normal” drinking looks like. Just as with abstinence-only sex education, abstinence-only drinking education is not as effective in achieving the overall objective to help a teen give their brain a break – to give their brain every opportunity to develop to its healthiest potential.
SAMHSA’s Resource Links for Prevention of Underage Drinking
- Alcohol Screening and Brief Intervention for Youth: A Practitioner’s Guide [PDF | 11MB] – A guide provided by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) that serves as a tool for identifying youth at risk for alcohol-related problems.
- Too Smart To Start – A website that helps youth, families, educators and communities prevent underage alcohol use and its related problems.
- UnderageDrinking.SAMHSA.gov – A public education website supported by the Surgeon General’s Call to Action on underage drinking that communicates to parents how they can help reduce their child’s risk of becoming involved with alcohol.
- The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking [PDF | 1.41MB] – A resource from HHS that provides information on underage drinking.
- Safe Schools, Healthy Students – An initiative of HHS, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Justice, designed to prevent violence and substance abuse among our nation’s youth, schools and communities.
- Stop Underage Drinking – A collaboration among SAMHSA and other federal agencies, this website provides a wealth of information on underage drinking, such as data and statistics; resources for parents, youth, educators, community organizations and businesses; and more.
Note: To find resources for the other four days of events, please visit SAMSHA’s Celebrate National Prevention Week Resources.