How Does Teen Substance Abuse Affect Functioning and Development
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Much growth and development occur physically, mentally, and emotionally during the teen years. Adding teen substance abuse into the mix can negatively impact brain development and functioning skills, leading to damaging effects. Since teens are still maturing, many don’t understand the impact until it is too late. This is why it is so important for parents to recognize the effects and take action to help their children when they realize there is a substance use disorder.

We will explore the specific ways teen drug and alcohol abuse affects the brain and the risks drug abuse can pose. You’ll also learn how the programs at Ember Recovery can help your teen overcome their substance abuse disorder.

How Teen Drug and Alcohol Use Affects the Brain

Drug Use

The teen years are extremely critical for brain development because the brain goes through many changes from age 13 through the mid-twenties. It is during this time that the brain conditions itself for future experiences.

Not only is the teenage brain going through changes, the frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for decision-making and self-control, is not fully mature yet. This part of the brain doesn’t fully mature until age 25. This is one of the reasons why teens may be inclined towards using drugs or alcohol.

When teens use drugs and alcohol, it can impact the brain’s ability to function. Drugs and alcohol flood the brain with high amounts of neurotransmitters, which are signals that tell you what to feel. Over time, drug and alcohol use weaken these signals’ ability to feel pleasure naturally.1 This is why teens begin to want more of their drug of choice. Drugs also trigger the part of the brain that stimulates anxiety and irritability.

Teens who use drugs and alcohol are putting their brains at risk of not functioning properly as well as from growing as they should. The impact drugs and alcohol can have on a teen’s brain include:

  • Damaging connections to the brain
  • Memory problems
  • Reducing the ability to experience pleasure

Science has backed up the harmful impact drugs and alcohol can have on a teen’s brain and development. Studies show that using marijuana can impact brain structure, affecting areas related to memory and problem-solving.2 Teens who use pot can lose up to 8 IQ points between childhood and adulthood.

Young people who use drugs are also more likely to deal with mental health disorders like depression, and psychotic disorders, like schizophrenia. If left untreated, these conditions can have a lasting impact on a teen’s ability to function.

When teens use drugs, their decision-making skills are also impacted. This can lead them to make impulsive or bad choices that can put them at risk. Continual drug use will only worsen their ability to make good choices.

Types of Drugs and Their Impact on the Brain

There are three different categories of drugs, each with different effects on the brain.


These drugs can cause a teen’s brain to become excited and work unnaturally fast. This can lead to their hearts racing, their temperatures rising, and their breathing to speed up.


Depressants lower the energy level, slowing the heart rate, breathing, and body temperature.


These types of drugs impact the brain’s perception of reality. Teens who use these drugs have delusional thoughts. They may see and hear things that don’t really exist.

While each drug can impact the brain differently, all affect how the brain and body function. This impact is generally negative and can lead to dangerous consequences.

Alcohol Use

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol is the most commonly used substance among young people in the U.S. Many teens use alcohol, not realizing the impact it can have on their development.

Alcohol use can significantly impact a teen’s brain, specifically the hippocampus. Research has shown early drinking can lead to poor academic performance and memory skills.3 Some researchers believe that the more a young person drinks during adolescence, the less gray matter they will have in the hippocampus, which helps to control fear responses and emotional memories. Teens who drink heavily can have memory problems, a short attention span, and trouble processing information.

Teen drinking can also lead to the following:

  • Liver damage
  • Shorter limbs and limited growing potential
  • Delayed puberty and problems with the reproductive system
  • Lower bone density

Teen substance abuse can also lead to long-term consequences.1 These include:

  • Trouble forming relationships
  • Poor academic performance
  • Increased risk of developing a substance use disorder

Long-term drinking can also lead to alcohol-related brain injury, including learning and memory problems and issues with balance.

Risks of Teen Substance Abuse

Because drug and alcohol use can impact a teen’s judgment, leading to risky behavior they may otherwise not engage in if they weren’t under the influence. This can result in:

  • Car accidents
  • Criminal activity
  • Unplanned pregnancies
  • Assaults

These impacts can be long-lasting and can permanently impact a teen’s life.

Get Help for Teen Substance Abuse at Ember Recovery

If your child is dealing with teen substance abuse, the team at Ember Recovery can help. Our center deals solely with teens because we understand the care they require differs from that of adults. We have helped over 5,000 youths across Iowa with substance abuse problems.

Our treatment programs include the following:

  • Detox Referrals
  • Dual Diagnosis Treatment
  • Individualized Recovery
  • Aftercare Recovery Planning

Besides these programs, we also offer a variety of therapies to help teens work through these problems. Our therapy sessions can involve families or focus on the individual. A combination of both is often needed to help teens battle their addiction.

Let us show you how treatment from Ember Recovery can help your teen get onto the path of sobriety and stay there. Call us today to learn more about our programs, or contact us online.