How Teens Become Addicted and Why They Need Help

Teenagers may want to stop using drugs as much as you want them to, but without proper intervention, they are wired to stay addicted.

Ever wonder how a teenager can go from loving their teenage years of school, sports, and friends to becoming completely uninterested in anything but partying? A new report was released by the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) that had insightful information about the path that teens take to addiction. Not just what drinking or drug use may occur, but how their brains actually change. The teen brain is still malleable and the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed in humans until our mid-20s. They liken this to a car that works without brakes. What this means for teens is that they simply are not fully wired yet to make sound decisions or to thoroughly assess situations. It is simply biology.

According to NIDA, "the brain is wired to encourage life-sustaining and healthy activities through the release of dopamine. Everyday rewards during adolescence—such as hanging out with friends, listening to music, playing sports, and all the other highly motivating experiences for teenagers—cause the release of this chemical in moderate amounts. This reinforces behaviors that contribute to learning, health, well-being, and the strengthening of social bonds."

So, dopamine is good. Teenagers naturally are enjoying life, as biology would have it. Now throw drugs into the mix. We know different drugs will affect the brain in different ways, an amphetamine versus a depressant for instance.  There is a common factor that occurs though; they all raise the level of the chemical dopamine in brain circuits that control reward and pleasure.  Where the wiring gets funky is when drugs "hijack" the natural dopamine release process.

The study says that the “high” produced by drugs represents a flooding of the brain’s reward circuits with much more dopamine than natural teenage fun can generate. After the dopamine floods from drug use, the brain then says "let's do that again" about the drugs, because the reward is so much greater than anything it had experienced prior.

"The immature brain, already struggling with balancing impulse and self-control, is more likely to take drugs again without adequately considering the consequences. If the experience is repeated, the brain reinforces the neural links between pleasure and drug-taking, making the association stronger and stronger. Soon, taking the drug may assume an importance in the adolescent’s life out of proportion to other rewards.”

Worse yet, the development of addiction creates a vicious cycle. First, chronic teenage drug use directs the teens priorities into the drug and away from their prior life. Then, it alters key brain areas that are necessary for judgment and self-control. As a result, the teen becomes handicapped to the ability to control or stop their drug use.

This is why willpower alone, demands from a parent, or even simply trying to rationalize with the teenager will not work to alter the effects at this point.  Sustainable recovery will require a more thorough and comprehensive treatment plan to “un-do” the effects of the drug use.  A qualified addiction specialist can help parents and teens navigate the path to a successful recovery so that the teen can get back to being a teenager who is rewarded by a life without drugs.