Thursday, February 27, 2014

Teenagers Delaying Drug Use: Does it cut down the risk of addiction?

Peter R. Coleman, M.D.

Most high schools have programs like DARE that aim to reduce teenage drug and alcohol use. They have a very noble intent.  However, it is not clear whether programs like DARE are actually effective. The real question is – If teenagers do delay trying alcohol or drugs, does this decrease their risk of developing an addiction later in life?

A recent study indicated that it does. The study showed that there is evidence that the longer that teenagers delay their first experimenting with drug or alcohol use, the less likely they will be to become drug addicts or alcoholics. The effect in this study was quite dramatic. Kids who start using at age 13 had about a 25% chance of developing a drug addiction, while kids who delayed their using until age 21 had only about a 10% chance of becoming an addict. This is a huge difference!

It is hard to know what to make of this research. Like any research study, it may not tell the whole story. On the one hand, kids who start using drugs very early in life are frequently troubled kids, from troubled families. Many of these kids have alcoholic or drug addict parents, so they are genetically more likely to become drug addicts or alcoholics themselves. It is not surprising that they will develop drug problems, no matter when they begin experimenting. On the other hand, this study is likely to be quite accurate because there is pretty good evidence that early drug and alcohol use actually stunts brain growth. Adolescence is a time of rapid brain growth, both in the number of brain cells but also in the number of connections and pathways. There is evidence that delaying first drug use allows the brain to mature and grow more normally. 

In addition to any physical damage that drug and alcohol use inflict on a developing brain, early drug use also stunts emotional growth. Adolescence is a time of rapid emotional growth. Teenagers need to grow up and mature, and to do that they need to experience emotions. They need to feel their feelings and practice how to process those feelings. Teenagers are changing from being children, who don’t have any idea about emotions, into adults who can understand and accept emotions, and who have good skills at dealing with these emotions. Drugs of abuse prevent teenagers from processing emotions. Drugs of abuse are called “mood-altering” drugs for a reason – they alter moods. This means that drugs change our mood, that is,they change our feelings. This means that people on drugs never really learn how to accept and deal with these emotions. If kids delay their drug use, they can experience emotions normally and learn how to handle these emotions. They can mature more effectively and accept themselves better. They can develop better self-esteem. They can mature and learn to make better decisions. They won’t need to use drugs or alcohol to combat feelings of loneliness, or boredom, or low self-esteem.

So, to me, it makes a lot of sense to have teenagers delay their drug and alcohol use. A recent patient of mine told me what he did with his children. He put some Apple stock into a trust and said he would give it to them if they did not use any drugs or alcohol until they were 21. It worked very well - the kids enjoyed their adolescence, they liked having a reason to tell their friends why they weren’t going to drink and do drugs, and they are still doing well today!

At The Coleman Institute, we care about you! If you or someone you love is in need of detox off of opiates, alcohol, benzos, Methadone, or Suboxone, please do not hesitate to call Jennifer Pius or Amy Stewart at 1.877.773.3869.  We're here to help you get clean and stay clean!

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