The Wild Side: A Look at Teens, Drugs, and Impulse Control
You have seen them on TV and in movies: images of teenagers at wild house parties drinking, taking drugs, dancing, and even doing crazy, foolish things. But you also know from experience that not all teens act like that.
So what tends to separate the partiers from the more “responsible” adolescents? It may simply be a matter of impulse control.
It All Starts in the (Teen) Brain
You may already know that typical human brains do not fully mature until a person’s 20s. One aspect of this development process is the brain’s ability to connect its regions with one another. Generally speaking, the brain develops from back to front.
One telltale sign of this maturity is the production of myelin, which is a fat that “insulates” the pathways that connect the brain (much like rubber insulation protects electrical wires) and helps them work together. The portions of the brain which become fully myelinated last are the frontal and prefrontal cortexes.
These two regions help control insight and empathy, which are important in the moderation of risk-taking behavior. So when the prefrontal cortex and frontal cortexes cannot be as easily accessed by the rest of the brain, they cannot mitigate the effects of impulsiveness as well as fully-mature brains can.
The Pitfalls of Proficient Learning
In addition, children and adolescents tend to be better at learning new things than adults are. In practice, this involves building and strengthening the connections between brain cells when new information and tasks are learned. These connections are called synapses, which get stronger the more they are used (like when teenagers practice a skill or study math).
Here is the problem. Since addiction is basically a perverse form of learning, these synapses can solidify when a teenager repeatedly uses drugs. After all, the brain is learning that it gets a pleasant reward when a drug is consumed. As a result, the addiction process tends to be faster and more efficient in teens than in adults. It also makes it harder for teenagers to kick the habit because their brains have been conditioned to seek out that short-term reward.
The Short-Term Gratification Problem
According to Psychology Today, teens who are impulsive often select a reward that is smaller but is experienced immediately instead of one which is stronger but received later. Put another way, it is generally more difficult for these teens to opt for delayed gratification.
Adolescents who lack patience or impulse control are more likely to engage in behavior that seeks short-term rewards despite their long-term consequences. Examples may include running up credit card debt by making gratuitous purchases, eating tasty processed foods which are unhealthy… and feeding their addictions despite the deleterious impact on their bodies, relationships, and lives.
Impulse Control vs. Sensation Seeking
However, it is important to distinguish between impulse control and risk-taking behavior. While the two concepts are related, science has shown that their effects on substance abuse are different.
A study underwritten by the National Institute on Drug Abuse fleshes out this difference. Researchers studied 382 children ages 11 to 13 and assessed them for two indicators: impulsivity and sensation seeking. The latter indicator was defined as looking for sensations that are more intense or novel than those of their peers.
The kids were also asked about their drinking, tobacco use, and marijuana consumption habits over a three-year period. What the researchers discovered was that while sensation-seeking kids were more likely to begin engaging in these behaviors, impulsivity was strongly correlated with escalating the abuse of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs.
The researchers concluded that teens who lack impulse control may be more inclined to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Therefore, they suggest trying to intervene in kids’ lives during early adolescence to help them build their self-control skills so they are not as likely to succumb to the dangers of addiction later on.
Of course, every teen is different and each case of addiction should be addressed individually. But if parents, caregivers, and healthcare professionals can start identifying impulse control issues in children prior to adolescence, they may be able to take proactive measures to reduce the odds of substance abuse for these kids when they reach their teenage years.
If your teen is having problems with impulse control when it comes to drugs or alcohol, contact us today for help.