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Parents Ask: How Do Drugs Affect the Brain of a Teenager?



Of course, you know that drugs can harm your teen’s health and well-being. But how do they affect the brain? 

What are the long-term consequences of using drugs at a young age? And what about alcohol? 

Is it worse for a kid to drink than smoke marijuana? To answer these questions, let’s look at how drugs work in the brain and how they affect teenagers.


Table of Contents

Teenagers’ brains are more sensitive to drugs

One of the main reasons that teens are more vulnerable to drug use is that their brains are still developing. 

The brain goes through a process called myelination, which means that neurons become coated with a sheath of insulating fat tissue. 

Myelin helps the brain send messages quickly and efficiently, and it continues to be produced into early adulthood.

Therefore, when you take drugs in your teens or early 20s, your brain has a higher chance of being negatively affected by these substances than if you were older and had a more fully developed nervous system. 

In addition to this crucial difference between teens’ and adults’ bodies, there are also differences between them in terms of how much experience they have with drugs: 

One study showed that students who took part in extracurricular activities such as sports teams or clubs were less likely than their peers not involved in such groups to have experimented with marijuana at least once by age 17.


Drugs affect the brain’s reward system, which makes it hard to quit.

Drugs can act on the brain’s reward system, which makes it hard to quit.

The reward system is a complex network of nerves and chemicals in your brain that motivates you to do things that feel good. 

It’s connected to parts of the brain that control emotion and motivation. When you do something pleasurable

—like eat a slice of chocolate cake or listen to your favorite song—the reward system tells you what feels good so you’ll come back for more (or play, sing along, and eat more cake). 

Because drugs cause intense feelings of pleasure, they have a powerful effect on this part of the brain.


Drugs cause changes in the brain that last long after they stop using drugs

But if you’re a parent, you know that it can be hard to watch your child make bad decisions. 

And if they’re using drugs, they might not even realize they are doing anything wrong.

So, what happens in the brain when someone is using drugs? Drugs cause changes in the brain that last long after they stop using drugs. 

These changes can make it really hard for someone to quit using drugs. 

Sometimes these changes are permanent! And sometimes these changes can make it hard for someone to focus or do well at school or work because their brains have been changed by drug use and now need treatment so that they can heal again.


Even occasional drug use can have serious consequences for teens

Even occasional drug use can have serious consequences for teens. Drugs are not a quick fix and can affect the brain and body in many ways.

Drugs can cause physical health problems, such as:

  • Heart problems
  • Damage to the liver, kidneys, and lungs
  • Stroke (a blockage of blood flow to your brain)

Drugs may also cause psychological problems:

  • Depression or other mood disorders; suicidal thoughts or attempts; and psychotic symptoms like hallucinations (seeing things that aren’t there) and paranoia (feeling like people are out to get you).


The risk of overdosing can be much higher for teens than adults

Teens are at a higher risk of overdose than adults because they take more drugs in a shorter period. 

This is especially true if your teenager is experimenting with multiple substances. The purity of drugs is also a factor. 

When teens take purer forms of drugs, their body absorbs them more quickly and their toxicity level increases. 

Teens’ bodies also process drugs differently than adults, so it’s possible that your teen could be susceptible to an overdose even if you’re not.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recommends that parents talk with their kids about the dangers of drug use before they start experimenting

—but it’s never too late! You can still save your child from harm by discussing these risks and encouraging them to seek help if they feel like they might have an addiction problem or develop one later on down the road.


Young people who use drugs are more likely to develop a substance use disorder as an adult

Parents need to know that using drugs can lead to a substance use disorder as an adult. 

A teenager who uses drugs has a higher chance of becoming a drug addict later in life than someone who doesn’t start using drugs until adulthood.

Drug abuse and addiction can have adverse effects on the brain, including brain damage, mental health problems such as depression or anxiety disorders, physical health problems like liver disease or heart disease (depending on the type of drug), and trouble with schoolwork or work performance.


Teens who are exposed to drugs also may have problems with learning and remembering things

You also may have problems with learning and remembering things. Studies have found that substance abuse can affect short-term memory, which is the ability to store information for a short period. 

To do well in school, teens need to remember what they learned in previous classes so they can apply what they’ve learned to future courses. 

Suppose you are using drugs or drinking alcohol regularly and heavily. 

In that case, it may be harder to learn and remember new information because these substances affect your brain chemistry by slowing down the way it processes information.

Drugs harm the health, well-being, and brain of teenagers

Regardless of the type of drug or frequency of use, drugs can cause changes in the brain that last long after they stop using drugs. 

These changes can lead to problems with thinking, learning, and memory for a teenager who uses alcohol or other drugs, even occasionally.

The effects of drugs on the brain are especially troubling because teens’ brains are still developing at this age. 

The part of the brain responsible for decision-making and problem-solving is not fully developed until around age 25. 

Drugs like nicotine interfere with how messages travel from one part of the brain to another

—and this could result in negative consequences later on in life when it comes time for these young adults to think critically about issues faced during adulthood (such as making important financial decisions).



It’s important to remember that just because teens are young doesn’t mean they don’t know what they are doing. 

Teens may not fully understand the consequences of their actions when it comes to drugs, but this does not mean that they aren’t aware of the potential risks involved. 

The dangers of drug abuse are very real for all individuals regardless of age or experience level—especially since it can lead down a path toward addiction or other serious health problems later on in life!


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