Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Adolescents and Alcohol: What Exactly Is At Risk?

By: Dr. Russell Hoffman, School Psychologist

With Purim fast approaching, it makes sense for us to pause and consider the messages we send - directly as well as unintentionally - to our children/students about alcohol. When parents and teachers express concern about adolescents’ recreational use of alcohol, what are we really worried about?  If we recall times when we experimented with alcohol or drank socially as teenagers without incident, does that mean that it would be hypocritical to deny our kids the same opportunity?

There are few certainties or 1:1 correspondences in Health science and education.  Health education means playing the odds and seizing opportunities to skew the odds in your favor.  In other words, adolescent alcohol use does not necessarily mean that teens who drink will run into trouble, but it does mean two important things: (1) drinking in adolescence raises the risk of alcohol-related problems, and (2) abstaining from alcohol during adolescence actually increases the odds that you will have a healthy developmental outcome.  As we tell students during Health class, deciding to abstain from drinking alcohol (and using other drugs) during adolescence is one of the few things that they can actually do to minimize their risk for substance related problems in life (i.e., addiction, legal trouble, relationship problems, etc.)  Teenagers often have a distorted sense of what they can control - they believe (erroneously) that they can partake in drinking or drugs and avoid the negative consequences that they have been warned about.  Those consequences are based on factors - such as genetic vulnerability, bad luck, random coincidence, etc. - that are not within their ability to control. This illusion of control often leads teenagers to minimize the risks inherent in some of the choices they make and to devalue or ignore important information in their decision-making. When we discuss this issue with students in school, we try to emphasize that while using alcohol is not the worst thing a person can do, the decision to not use alcohol or other substances, at least until they are older, is the one thing that has actually been shown to correlate with positive, healthier developmental outcomes later in life.

During a recent discussion with students in school, an astute student pointed out that this correlation may not be so important.  Couldn’t it simply mean, asked the student, that the group of people who choose to use alcohol as teenagers are just more predisposed to make the kinds of choices in life that also lead to those negative outcomes?  In other words, how do we know that the early use of alcohol has any causal connection to problems later in life.  Great question!  Most researchers validate the causal relationship between these two variables based on what we know about adolescent brain development.  The brain is one of the last bodily organs/systems to fully mature.  Furthermore, the last area of the brain to reach full developmental maturity is the prefrontal cortex, which is the brain region responsible for, among other things, critical reasoning and exercising judgement.  During adolescence and into early adulthood, the brain is still developing and establishing neural networks in this crucial area; full brain maturity is typically achieved during one’s early-to-mid 20’s.  So, for teenagers, using alcohol or other drugs means introducing a mind-altering substance during a developmental stage of growth - a time when their brains are more vulnerable.  This is very likely the reason for the correlation between the early onset of alcohol use and the negative outcomes in adulthood.  When teenagers abstain from substance use and postpone it until early adulthood, they not only protect their brain development, but they also benefit from the additional years of life experience that they accrue in the interim, experience that they can draw on to make wiser decisions as adults.

Just as Esther had to take a risk and engage the king in an awkward but vital conversation, we urge parents to talk to their children about the role of alcohol in the upcoming holiday of Purim and about their values and expectations for their children's behavior.  The information above is intended to help facilitate these conversations between parents and children.  May we all enjoy a joyous and uplifting Purim!


  1. It is not necessarily true that beginning alcohol consumption at an earlier age causes more alcohol related problems on one's lifetime. For example, in Italy most people begin consuming alcohol before adolescence while Italy has a markedly lower rate of alcohol related problems than America. I'm not encouraging teens to go out and drink; I'm just saying that there are probably other factors at play.

  2. On a related note, here is a link to a story that aired on NPR on March 3 in which they discuss the impact of marijuana on adolescent brain development - admittedly, they mainly address the effects of more habitual (e.g., daily) pot-smoking:

  3. Thank you for your comment. I agree that there are many complex factors that contribute to adolescent's decision-making around using alcohol/drugs. The article that is linked at the end of the blog does, in fact, address the point that you make. They actually found that in wine-producing countries (like Italy), teens and young adults do consume alcohol with meals but they tend not to drink to the point of intoxication and they do not tend to drink in between meals. I think that this indicates that young people in these countries are taught (they tend to model their drinking after the adults' drinking behavior) to drink in moderation.


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