Judith Grisel, Ph.D., an addiction expert, recounts her first taste of alcohol—drinking wine at the age of 13—in a way that could describe any teenager’s experience.
“I felt as Eve should have after tasting the apple. Or as a bird hatched in a cage would feel upon being unexpectedly set free,” Dr. Grisel vividly recalls in her book Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction. “The drug provided physical relief and spiritual antidote for the persistent restlessness I’d been unable to identify or share… alcohol provided powerful subconscious recognition of my desperate strivings for self-acceptance and existential purpose and my inability to negotiate a complex world of relationships, fears, and hopes.”
Drinking or using other drugs can provide “an easy way through the difficulty of growing up” and precipitate a descent into drug abuse, says Dr. Grisel, a neuroscientist in recovery for over 30 years and a psychology professor at Bucknell University.
After her introduction to alcohol, Grisel spent 10 years as a daily user and later a college dropout on a harrowing journey that took her to seedy motels and exchanges with questionable people in the quest for drugs of all varieties and at any cost. But why do some young people end up on this dangerous path?
And is there a role for parents to play in prevention?
Teen substance use today
Some research suggests that expanded legalization of pot in many states across the country has been associated with a higher rate of marijuana use among adolescents under 18 (for whom it’s still not legal) in those states. That’s one more reason for parents to be prevention-minded.
What’s more, while teens’ use of most drugs has decreased during the pandemic, adolescent alcohol and cannabis use has increased, according to research in the Journal of Adolescent Health, first published online in July. That included a rise in solitary use of these substances, which researchers found was related to increased COVID-19 fears and symptoms of depression.
Many other factors may impact when and how frequently teens turn to drugs or alcohol.
As Grisel notes in her book, genetics may certainly play a role in determining who’s more susceptible to addiction. The more DNA a person shares with an addict, the higher one’s risk for addiction. Even children of addicts adopted immediately after birth continue to have an elevated risk for addiction.
But what happens at home also has an impact on the likelihood that adolescents will develop substance use problems. That’s not only true when parents are addicted to illicit drugs, like cocaine, but it may occur when caretakers are permissive in drinking with adolescent children as well.
Results from the study evaluating substance use during the pandemic “suggest a surprisingly large number of adolescents were using substances with parents during the COVID-19 crisis.” The upshot is that when teens partake with parents, lower rates of heavy drinking, cannabis, and vaping are reported. However, the study authors point out that while kids tend to drink in moderation around parents, past research finds they’re more likely to engage in high-risk drinking when they’re consuming alcohol outside of the home.
We know that young brains are developing and, therefore, more susceptible to drugs. But what teens and their parents may not appreciate is that those same impulsive decisions can impact neurological development. Drug use can change the very structure of the brain permanently.
These brain structure changes can lead to cognitive and behavioral deficits. For example, a sibling-comparison study of 1,192 adolescents from 596 families found using cannabis more frequently and starting to use earlier was linked to poorer cognitive performance, specifically in regard to tests of verbal memory. More study is needed to confirm the findings, which contrast with previous twin studies. But the authors of the research, published in the journal Addiction in September, report that even moderate marijuana use (roughly twice weekly, on average) may have an adverse impact.
Research finds changes in the brain from early drug exposure also increase drug-taking or drug-seeking behavior, Grisel points out in Never Enough.
There are many environmental influences that could push teenagers who tend to be risk-takers into drug use. Such factors include everything from economic status and education to physical or sexual abuse.
Certainly, family stability plays a major role. Upheaval at home or family stress can raise the risk that a teen will become addicted to drugs. As with some other environmental factors, it can be difficult to define or quantify what constitutes problematic family stress, as Grisel notes. COVID-19 has added to almost everyone’s stress and threatened stability for many.
Nonetheless, even in stable times, there’s no way to avoid conflict entirely; it’s important to strive for peace at home. That includes addressing problems with drug or alcohol addiction that parents themselves may face.
For parents who find that their children are using drugs, there are no easy answers. But a good place to start is seeking professional help. And whether preventing problem drug use or breaking free from addiction, healthy relationships are a critical component. Grisel emphasizes the need for such “honest connections.”
For Grisel, it was her father reconnecting with her after having refused to speak with her—or even acknowledge he had a daughter—at the height of her addiction that made a world of difference in her recovery. “Though there were several turning points in my trajectory, it seems profoundly significant that the material change began… when my father inexplicably changed course and took me out for my 23rd birthday.” His willingness to be seen with her and treat her with kindness, Grisel recalls, “split open my defensive shell of rationalizations and justifications. It broke open the lonely heart that neither of us knew I still had.”
By contrast, Grisel and other addiction experts emphasize, when people feel isolated or alienated as so many teens are during the pandemic, they’re much more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol and have a harder time breaking free from addiction. While we’re still learning about all the factors that make addiction so intractable, Grisel says we have enough data to understand that our brains are shaped by more than individual biology. “And of all these influences, perhaps the most immediate and impactful, and therefore potentially helpful for realizing change, are our connections with each other,” she says.
For parents searching for answers, making your relationship with your teen a priority—difficult as it may be to connect sometimes—is a powerful place to start.
Copyright @2020 by Susan Newman
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