Peer Pressure & Teenage Drinking

Teens Ask, Hazelden Betty Ford's Prevention Solutions Answers
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Teens often assume that risky behavior is expected of them

Adolescence can be a challenging time. Teens confront pressures from all directions: parents, siblings, friends, enemies, frenemies, crushes, teachers, and most of all, themselves.

The good news is, in order to handle these pressures, teens have the most flexible brains on the planet. Until the brain is fully developed—sometime in the mid-20s—teens soak up knowledge like a sponge. With new information, they can change worldviews. With very little acquaintance, they can form lifelong bonds. This wondrous flexibility is responsible for both the most exciting aspects of adolescent life and its unique risks.

Substance use is one of these risks.

Prevention Solutions knows that teens are curious about the role the adolescent brain plays in alcohol and other drug use and addiction. So we asked for the help of students in some of our client schools in order to share with you what is on teens' minds when it comes to their brains.

They ask great questions! This is the first installment of "Teens Ask, Prevention Solutions Answers."

Q: What is it about a teenaged brain that draws teens to alcohol and other drug use?

A: Consider what adults say about teenagers: that they're "impulsive," "reckless," "irresponsible," "moody," "rebellious." These stereotypes have roots in adolescent brain development, and especially within the following three areas of the brain:

  • The limbic system controls emotional life. Feelings of fear and stress live here. Brain structures in the limbic system are very active during adolescence.
  • The reward pathway is a series of brain structures that connects the limbic system to another brain region—the prefrontal cortex. The reward pathway creates sensations of pleasure in the teen brain. This pleasure from the reward pathway is a powerful motivator for teens. It can confuse a teen's emotions with his or her abilities to reason out a situation.
  • The prefrontal cortex controls higher-level functioning, like personality, reasoning, decision-making, and impulse control.

During adolescence, the prefrontal cortex is the last area of the brain to develop. As a result, pleasure and emotion—not reasoning—guide most teen behavior. This means teens are more prone than adults to engage in risk-taking behaviors. Their impulses are very powerful, while their ability to control those impulses is not quite as strong. To simplify: in teens, the "on" switch is fully developed, while the "off" switch is still growing.

Meanwhile, adolescents are flooded with social and cultural messages concerning the risks and rewards of substance abuse. Most messages downplay the risks of use and overstate the possible rewards. Some teens are guided to substance use because they believe it will be a low-risk, high-reward behavior. The evidence-based social norms approach to prevention tells us this is not true for teens. In fact, the social-norms based Student Attitudes and Behavior Survey reveals that students who suffer the most severe health consequences of use are those who have also underestimated the risks of use and overestimated how prevalent use is among their peers.

Q: How does the teen brain respond to peer pressure?

A: The pressure teens put on themselves to "fit in" or "be cool" internally is more influential to their own choices about use than the pressure teens put on their friends and peers externally. In terms of the brain, peer pressure is a state of anxiety: it's the worry that, in order to be accepted, you must change yourself in ways you do not wish.

Psychologist Erik Erikson said that the major challenge of adolescence is forming a healthy personal identity and healthy peer relationships. So internal peer pressure—the pressure teens put on themselves—is the anxious feeling that they won't be able to form coveted peer relationships while maintaining the personal identity they would also like to hold.

The good news is that:

  • Every teenager with a best friend, a close-knit group of friends, or several circles of different good friends, from different walks of life, already fits in. Fitting in is just belonging to a group of people who accept you for who you are.
  • Most teenagers are making healthy decisions. So, the decision not to use alcohol or other drugs is, in reality, the best way for teens to make sure they're doing what almost "everyone else" is.

Unfortunately, teens often assume that risky behavior is expected of them. A seventh grader may think, "When I'm 16, all my friends will probably drink." This assumption may have a very real effect on how that seventh grader chooses her friendships when she becomes 16.

By imagining risky situations in their future, teens are more likely to seek out those very same environments later. So peer pressure doesn't just happen in the moment when a teen tries to persuade another teen to drink—it begins years before that moment.

In terms of the brain, remember that internal peer pressure registers emotionally, not logically, for teens. When students can feel better about making healthy decisions that maintain their personal identities, they are more likely to enjoy safer peer environments where alcohol and other drug use is less likely to be a compelling choice.

Q: Are teen brains really more susceptible to peer pressure than adult brains?

A: Both teens and adults experience peer pressure! Teenagers do seem to be a bit more susceptible.

A teen's extra challenges with peer pressure are rooted in brain development. Remember that a teen's still-developing prefrontal cortex is what controls a teen's budding personality. Teens' "work-in-progress" status can make it difficult for them to decide whether or not the practice of a risky behavior would act against his or her identity. If you aren't yet sure who you are, it's harder to say, "This behavior isn't me."

In addition to figuring out their identities, adolescents are learning to control their emotions. Teens are more likely than adults to act out of emotion, and anxiety—the emotion of peer pressure—is powerful. When anxiety is present, teens may be less likely than adults to make the healthy decisions that prevent their use of substances.

If teenage alcohol or drug use seems likely to reduce "negative" emotions, and an emotionally-driven teen is unaware that all use equals risk for them, he or she may make an unhealthy decision. An adult in the same scenario is more likely to experience the anxiety less intensely, to better understand the risks of alcohol and other drug use, and to conclude that stress relief through risky substance use isn't worth it.

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