Binge Drinking: The Unique Danger to Teen Brains

When we pack our kids off to college, it’s easy to imagine them pursuing the academic side of school life. But thinking of teens in full party mode, pounding shots and chugging beers, can be the source of much parental anxiety. Alcohol abuse and binge drinking (consuming four – five drinks in about two hours) peaks during the college years, according to Dr. Frances E. Jensen, chair of the neurology department at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania and co-author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults

Tips on how to discuss binge drinking with teens

We recently interviewed Dr. Jensen to ask her guidance on how to discuss alcohol abuse with our college-bound teens. Our Q & A follows:

How Parents Can Talk to Their Teens about Binge Drinking

1. G&F: In Teen Brain, you write about the physiological effects of alcohol and binge drinking on developing brains. How can we explain it to our teens and have them better appreciate the risks in drinking?

FJ: Alcohol, like many drugs which you take from the outside, or stress and sleep deprivation which produce hormones and changes in your brain transmitters, affect how our synapses function. The synapses are where your brain cells connect to each other and send signals to get thoughts to happen and where memorization occurs.

The teen brain has more synapses than there are in the adult brain so if you put a substance into your body there is more “real estate” where the substances can interact. The teen brain has more receptor sites which makes alcohol have a greater effect on teens than adults. The load is higher, the effect is stronger, and the duration longer than on the adult brain. Because the teen brain cells are so impressionable – they get changed so much by the amount they are stimulated – everything, good and bad, is amplified in the teen brain.

Here are 4 important facts about the teen brain, alcohol abuse and binge drinking:

1. Alcohol will have more of an effect on a teenager than on an adult. With the same amount of alcohol, an adult might go into a dormant state where a teen could experience brain injury. Binge drinking, in particular, has been shown to cause brain injury in a teen where it would not in an adult.

2. Alcohol affects synapses so it can short change a teen’s big advantage over adults. They can miss this fleeting chance to learn more than at any future time of their lives.

3. Addiction is a form of learning, as when you are trying to get the same circuit to fire to learn a tennis or golf swing or to memorize Spanish vocabulary. It is repeated use of the same circuit which builds a bigger synapse. This happens more easily for a teen because of the plasticity of their younger brains. Addiction to a harmful substance is the same thing. It is repeated exposure to a drug which causes a strengthened response and can become hard-wired in a brain. Unfortunately, addiction can happen faster in a teen just like learning happens faster.

4. Alcohol can loosen inhibition and result in “opening up” behavior. Drinking can impede the functioning of the frontal lobe, which is an area that can prevent risky behavior. Teens frontal lobes are not fully connected, and won’t be until their late twenties, especially in males. Fully connected adults can be disinhibited by alcohol which can cause them to do risky things. If you are starting off disinhibited because your frontal lobes are not connected, alcohol will get you to the place of disinhibition even faster.

2. G&F: Is it possible to teach our kids to drink responsibly, like we teach them to drive safely?

FJ: It’s an interesting point. We know that risk taking behavior is a part of adolescence so that something that is considered taboo has the allure of big risk. It is unfortunate that binge drinking comes from a lack of experience with alcohol so that when some teens have sudden access to it, they drink impulsively and excessively. Binge drinking is a problem in college and should be a good point of discussion for parents.

It’s important to give them information and facts about alcohol and examples of what can happen. That is what I did with my kids. Inevitably, and very sadly, there will be a DUI with a fatality in most people’s high school or colleges which can be a learning experience. Parents can give their kids a “frontal lobe assist” to understand why excessive inebriation is not a good thing, especially with driving, and try to get them to be aware that they are very prone to impulsivity and risk taking.

Their limbic system (emotions, rage, succumbing to peer pressure, wanting to be liked) gets connected years ahead of the full connectivity of the frontal lobe. Peer pressure can push kids to take further risks in groups. Parents have to explain that they will be tempted, and they will want to be like everyone else, but there are dangers on the other side of risky behavior and their brains are more vulnerable. None of us can expect that our kids will abstain from alcohol before the age of 21. You just need to arm them with facts.

It is interesting that other societies do it differently with many other countries allowing earlier drinking ages. This topic requires more studies which are ongoing.

3. G&F: You report that 50% of the risk of alcoholism is genetic; what actions should parents take if there is a family history of this disease?

FJ: It is crucial for parents to have conversations with their kids if there is history of alcoholism with direct relatives within a family. They need to know that they, potentially, have a higher risk of alcoholism and they should know what the warning signs are. LIkewise, mental illness traits (depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) are highly hereditary so if there is a family history, parents should be a bit more vigilant for the warning signs and aware of changes in your teen because they may have a higher risk. They may also carry a higher risk for substance abuse.

[More about Dr. Frances Jensen’s research and writing on the teen brain here.] 

4. G&F: What advice did you give your sons, as a mom and neurologist, when they were going off to college? 

I told them “it’s not done yet.” They are in an amazing window for learning that they won’t have again. This generation of high school and college kids is the first to know that they can get more accomplished now than later. I reinforced that they would be able to learn faster, longer and stronger than they will be again, in life. I told them they would be more susceptible to peer pressure, like they were in high school, but they are on their own.

Parents can’t give them the first taste of freedom the day they drop their kids off at the college dorm. Phase in independence, let them have opportunities to make choices and have some independence before they go off to college. Camps or semesters abroad or anything that has independence are really good ways to let teens experience being on their own. They have to experience trial and error, and failure, and parents need to wean themselves from swooping into solve their problems for them. We all struggle with this and, as parents, see the obvious problems our kids create for themselves. Give them examples of cause and effect, as I call it, a frontal lobe assist, and why it is worthwhile planning things out.

Finally, I also told them about how mental illness can occur when kids get to college and to be alert to their friends who might be need help. Recognize that they might have a friend who will have a psychotic break or severe anxiety issues. Be empathetic, be a friend and help them seek help.

Related:

Go Ahead, Call Your College Freshman

Going to College: 7 Big Talks to Have Before They Leave 

Our favorite posts for parents of college-bound students are here. 

Frances Jensen Frances E. Jensen, MD, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Jensen has researched brain development from the neonatal period through adulthood. She was Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, Director of Translational Neuroscience and Director of Epilepsy Research at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Senior Neurologist at Boston Children’s and Brigham and Women’s Hospitals. She lectures widely about the teen brain at science museums, TEDMED, and high schools.

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