The teenage years are many things: exciting, nerve-wracking, depressing, fun, and difficult. You strive to fit in, to be somebody. Your life is about school and friends and family. But, being a teenager is one thing; being a teen with mental health or addiction issues is incredibly hard.
Many teens turn to addictive substances like drugs or alcohol because something in their lives is not working. There may be dysfunction in the family. They may be the victim of bullying. They may not be performing academically or socially the way they hoped they would. All of these negative pressures can lead to risky and addictive behaviors.
The Brain on Drugs
Drugs are chemicals, pure and simple. Ingesting, smoking, inhaling, or injecting drugs alters the brain’s communication system and alters the way nerve cells function – the way they send, receive, and/or process information. Because each drug has a different chemical make-up, they each work differently in the brain. However, science has determined that there are primarily two ways drugs work in the brain:
- Imitating the brain’s natural chemical messengers
- Overstimulating the “reward circuit” of the brain
If you examine drugs like marijuana and heroin, you will find that both have chemical structures that mimic a naturally occurring neurotransmitter in the body. These drugs attach to our receptors and activate nerve cells. But, they don’t function the same way as a natural neurotransmitter, and the neurons wind up sending weird messages through the brain, which causes problems for the brain and the body.
Other drugs, like cocaine (coke) and methamphetamine (meth), cause a release of too much dopamine (the feel good neurotransmitter) or prevent the normal functioning of the dopamine cycle. This brings exaggerated messages to the brain, causing problems with communication. And this difference is not at all subtle – it’s compared to the difference between someone whispering in your ear and someone shouting in a microphone.
For many years, scientists believed that dopamine alone caused the feeling high during drug use, but further studies have shown it is more complicated. Many drugs—nicotine, marijuana, cocaine, and others—influence the brain’s “reward” center in the limbic system.
Under normal circumstances, the reward circuit responds to healthy, pleasurable activities by releasing dopamine, which encourages other parts of the brain to repeat those actions. Illicit drugs take control of this system, releasing large amounts of dopamine—first as a response to the drug but later in response to other cues associated with the drug—like being with your drug-using friends, or being where you typically use drugs. The brain remembers this feeling and sends out an intense motivation to seek and use the drug again. This is the beginning of the physical and psychological addiction to drugs.
In addition to being inherently dangerous, drugs can also stunt brain development. Brain development scientists have determined that the teen brain is quite susceptible to the effects of drug use, which makes teens especially vulnerable to forming an addiction. The teen years are a period where kids engage in risk-taking behaviors which can drive them toward trying drugs.
Addiction is far more likely to develop during the adolescent years, as age is an important factor. The adolescent brain is nowhere near fully developed and teens don’t have the necessary reasoning and critical thinking skills to make life-altering decisions. Research shows that the younger a person begins using drugs, the more likely he or she is to become an addict.
When a teen uses drugs frequently and in large quantities, this slows the ability of the brain to develop the fatty tissue that surrounds brain cells (myelin). Myelin is critical to aiding in nervous system function as well as information comprehension and retention. People with low levels of myelin have difficulty moving, thinking, talking, and completing even simple, everyday tasks.
In addition, long-term effects on the brain from sustained, heavy drug use include the following:
- Dramatic changes in the brain’s neurons and communication circuits
- Growth of a tolerance that requires more drugs to get the same high
- Overstimulation of the reward center in the brain
These types of changes can be devastating to the long-term health of the teen brain. Parents could see a decline in cognitive function (bad grades), poor decision-making (engaging in risky behavior), and loss of motor skills (balance and sports performance). While all of these are bad enough in the teen years, it is critical to remember that such damage can be permanent. These changes can remain with your teen for his or her entire life.
Risk Factors for Addiction
Though we do know what happens to the brain when a teen is addicted, we can’t predict the timeline of addicted. There is no way to know how many times it takes for a person to become addicted to a drug. A combination of factors related to genes, environment, and personal growth boosts the chance that drug use will wind up in addiction
- Home situation. Parents or older family members who are addicts, or who engage in criminal activity, can increase a teen’s risk for developing a drug addiction. Sometimes a teen will see it as the only way to escape from a violent or unpleasant home life.
- School and peers. Friends and peers who use drugs have a way of convincing young people to try drugs initially. Students who are academically or socially awkward can also be at risk for drug use. These students are so desperate to fit in anywhere that they may use drugs just to obtain relationships with peers.
- Early use. The earlier a teen starts using drugs, the more likely he or she is to progress to more frequent use and ultimately end up addicted. This could signify the harmful effect that drugs have on the young, underdeveloped brain. It also may be the result of genetics, mental health issues, instability in the family, and exposure to physical or sexual abuse.
- Method of use. Because of the body’s delivery systems, smoking a drug or injecting a drug into a vein increases the likelihood of addiction. Both enter the brain within seconds, producing a powerful rush. But, this intense “high” usually fades within a few minutes, and the teen no longer feels good. This nearly immediate low drives teens to repeat drug use in an attempt to recapture the high.
All of these factors contribute to both the physical addiction of drugs and the psychological addiction that drives a need for drugs.
Physical and Psychological Addiction
Being physically addicted means the teen is dependent on the drug – no matter how the drug is introduced to the body. Physical addiction increases the speed of building tolerance to the drug, so that a teen needs larger, more frequent doses than before to get the same high. If a teen is physically addicted and suddenly stops using (going ‘cold turkey’), he or she is likely to experience physical withdrawal symptoms. Common symptoms of withdrawal are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shaking, hallucinating, and generally feeling awful.
If a person quits cold turkey after extended use of drugs, it is essential that he or she is monitored by a medical professional during the withdrawal stage. Many teens have died during withdrawal because of dehydration, heart issues, or other medical emergencies.
Psychological addiction is when the cravings for a drug are driven by an emotional need. Teens who are psychologically addicted are overcome by the desire to use, and they are more than capable of lying or stealing to get their fix.
A teen crosses the line between use and addiction when he or she is no longer trying the drug for fun but has come to depend on it. In psychological addiction, a teen’s whole life is about scoring the next high. An addicted teen — whether it’s a physical or psychological addiction or both — no longer believes there is a choice in taking a drug. This is when addiction becomes a mental health issue or points to the fact that the teen may have a mental health issue he or she is covering with drugs.
Addiction and Mental Health Issues
Addiction is often referred to as “self-medication.” The idea is that some teens might drink and do drugs to feel better when they are suffering from an undiagnosed or diagnosed mental health issue. Self-medicating is helps us explain why some teens try drugs or alcohol.
It’s not unusual for a teen dealing with anxiety to use drugs as a coping mechanism. In fact, research shows that some teens with drug addiction have other mental health issues simultaneously. If a teen is dealing with depression or anxiety, he or she might use drugs to cope. In the reverse, a teen who can’t stop his or her addiction to drugs could get depressed about it. It’s a proven fact that regular abuse of drugs can literally change the way the brain functions, which can contribute to mental health issues.
Or, there is an alternative explanation—inherited traits or a person’s life experience can make them vulnerable to chemical brain changes involved in either depression or addiction. This is called “co-occurring conditions” or “comorbidity.” Although addictions commonly occur with other mental health issues, this does not mean that one caused the other. What’s important is to know that interactions between the addiction and mental health issues can worsen both conditions.
Co-occurring conditions are not uncommon, and there is no shame in seeking treatment. These mental health issues can be treated when teens are comfortable enough to share their worries with a trusted adult. Maybe your teen tells his or her pediatrician about his or her anxiety, and how drugs make him or her temporarily feel better. The doctor (in consultation with the parents) can recommend a healthier approach to managing both problems. What’s essential is that the doctor include the parents in the conversation.
Talking to Your Kids
It is nerve-wracking to have the drug talk with your child. Kids are reluctant to share information or connect with you. However, experts have suggested some guidelines for parents should they need to intervene in their teen’s behavior.
Before you talk to your teen, consider this: determine whether they’re currently under the influence of drugs.
Teens who are actively using and are then provoked can act erratically and even violently. If you want to address your teen’s drug addiction, wait until he or she is sober to avoid any unnecessary physical conflict.
Don’t come into the conversation blind: investigate your teen’s situation. You may already have an idea of what’s going on, but that doesn’t mean you know what drugs your child is using. Keep track of the observations you make and include dates, times and other details when possible.
Once you’ve done your research, look for drugs and paraphernalia in your teen’s room and/or car. It is important to collect concrete evidence of your child’s involvement in drug use because the teen will undoubtedly deny using drugs right away. Prepare to be accused of “snooping” or violating his or her privacy. Be prepared to tell your teen that your actions are out of love and concern and not about invading anyone’s privacy.
Make sure that both parents are on board before approaching this delicate situation. Ideally, your united front will prevent the teen from trying to play one parent against another parent.
Know what you’d like the outcome of this conversation about your teen’s drug use to be. This is never a one-time conversation. Over time, you will have a number of conversations to convince your child to stop using or go to rehab.
Teen addiction can happen for any number of reasons: family dynamics, school, and social pressures, or dealing with mental or physical health issues. What’s important is that you talk with your teens about addiction before they start showing symptoms of risky behavior. The more open and honest you are about the harm of addiction, the less likely your teen is to become addicted. Keep the lines of communication open between yourself and your teen.
The more comfortable your teen is talking to you, the more likely that your teen will come to you if there is a problem that needs addressing. But above all, let your teens know that you love them and that no matter what happens, that love will always be there.
The dedicated staff at Beachside Teen Treatment Center are also an excellent resource to assist teens in determining the appropriate path to help them to manage and overcome their mental health issues. The experienced team members at Beachside will help to support both you and your teenager in the journey to recovery.