Sobering Truths

Teenage drinking stunts your child’s emotional growth
By Gary Koen

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Adolescence refers to the period in our children’s lives that stretches from pubescence to self-sufficiency. It is a monumental journey, packed with developmental tasks and expectations, all of which our children need to negotiate and fulfil if they are ever to properly feel in control of their lives. Learning to cope with change is one of their greatest challenges. Everything changes during adolescence, and the biggest test for teenagers, and parents, is how they deal with them.
 
These changes usually begin with the transformation that is taking place inside their growing bodies, which then ripples out and influences every other area of their lives. They signal the beginning of a range of new, important, complex and elaborate relationships that will dominate and influence the rest of their lives. These include their relationship with their body, their friends, their boyfriends and girlfriends, the outside world, their parents, and, most importantly, their relationship with themselves. What they are also about to discover is their relationship with their own brain.
 
Alcohol and the brain
 
In the past, researchers believed that by the time children reached adolescence their brain was fully developed. However, more recent discoveries have shown that this is not true. Conclusive evidence suggests that the teenage brain undergoes several dramatic structural changes, which continue until about the age of 20. During adolescence large sections of grey matter gets shed and faster, more efficient synaptic pathways for the conduit of information are established. In simple terms, this describes the process of learning which, for a short period during adolescence, is quite fluid and adaptable. This explains why it is much easier for teenagers to learn a new language, to play an instrument or to understand technology. At the same time though, it also makes teenagers more susceptible to picking up negative and debilitating habits.
 
The reason for this is that the pre-frontal cortex – the seat of all our later executive functions which, among other things, regulates our judgement, our impulse control and our capacity to discern wrong from right – is painfully exposed and underdeveloped during adolescence. It is therefore impossible to expect teenagers to be in control of their lives at this stage, making the role of the parents crucial.
 
Developmental implications
 
As parents you have to remember that adolescence is the gradual movement from a state of dependency towards being able to function independently. There are a whole range of developmental tasks along the way, but the goal is for them to be able to function as independent people who are in charge of their lives. The last thing they need is to be fooling around with a substance that is actually going to keep them helpless and dependent forever, which alcohol does. Research confirms that alcohol is a powerful drug that has debilitating effects on motor, memory, perceptual, executive and developmental functions. This applies particularly to teenagers whose brains are still developing and evolving. The value of this research is that it enables parents and educators to tell teenagers that drinking alcohol at a young age will be bad for their mental health. The earlier teenagers start drinking, the greater the likelihood of them developing a debilitating alcohol dependency in their adult years. A less-acknowledged, but profoundly disturbing, consequence of underage drinking is its ability to stunt emotional development.
 
Teenagers who start drinking from a young age may carry on growing mentally and physically, even cognitively, but their emotional growth may be severely compromised.
 
If teenagers start drinking frequently at the age of 15 and then stop drinking at the age of 28, their emotional age when they finally stop drinking will be approximately that of a 15-year-old. Giving up drinking is invariably the easy part; getting on with their lives afterwards is an entirely different proposition. The real reason these people find it so hard to stay off the drugs and the alcohol is because they have the maturity, self-control, insight and judgement of a 15-year-old. All the important lessons they were supposed to have learnt when they were a teenager, now have to be learnt when they are in their 20s, 30s or even their 40s. Things that come naturally when you are 15 become difficult and painful when you are starting to do them as an adult.
 
Alcoholics and drug addicts in countless rehabilitation centres around the world are still trying to find the boundaries and limits they were supposed to have learnt while growing up.
 
Long-term effects
 
Alcohol is deceptive because you often find that the people who drink copious amounts of alcohol tend to be incredibly bright and talented, and full of potential. Despite their binges, they usually still manage to complete difficult degrees and carry on to achieve brilliance. Their intellect has not been compromised; it is their emotional capacity that has been limited by alcohol. It is their capacity to grasp and understand themselves and how best to live their lives without self-destruction that they really struggle with. They never fully come to terms with the values of integrity, morality, reliability and commitment. Alcoholics and drug addicts can be the nicest of people – kind, frank, open, spontaneous, disarming and engaging. Unfortunately, they can also become the most unpredictable and unreliable people, especially when put under pressure or placed in a situation that requires them to act with uprightness and responsibility.
 
This will only manifest later, and not immediately when teenagers steal a bottle of beer to drink behind the tool shed. However, when they start regularly stealing bottles of hard spirits and splitting it with their friends, there is cause for concern.
 
Drinking half a glass of wine occasionally with the family at a Sunday lunch will hardly have any effect, but downing two or three beers or ciders every night of the weekend, most certainly will. Further danger comes in the form of associating alcohol with socialising. Somehow, going out with friends is not complete unless they are also having a drink.
 
Teenagers need to develop a capacity for self-reflection and independent thought, but alcohol cuts right through this process, making them believe they are someone they are not. The characteristics: comfort, insights and confidence that come from being drunk are short-lived and gone the following morning. Any self-discoveries made while they were drunk, will be lost in the aftermath of the hangover.
 
What is the appeal?
 
What makes alcohol so lethal is that initially, in even the smallest of quantities, it does seem to have positive effects. It can relax teenagers and fill them with confidence, making them less self-conscious. If they can keep it together while drinking, they may find there are sides to themselves that they never knew were there. This is all well and good, but those aspects of themselves will only reappear when they next drink. They may find that they need more alcohol to find that comfortable place. The problem with more alcohol is that the line between funny and stupid becomes very thin, while the gap between who they are, and who they want to be, starts to widen.
 
I recall listening to a 15-year-old boy explain to me why he drank. “I do it”, he said, “because I feel too embarrassed to go and talk to girls.” This from a boy who the previous weekend had gone to a party where he had gotten so drunk that among other things, he had vomited all over the host’s lounge, then started a fight before passing out at the bottom of the garden, where some friends eventually found him. They wrestled him into a car before dumping him over the wall of his house into the garden where his parents discovered him the following day. I stared incredulously at him. “Are you really telling me that talking to a girl could be more embarrassing than all of that?” Apparently so.
 
The real message for those teenagers who have enjoyed the benefits of alcohol, and found themselves more relaxed and spontaneous, less self-conscious and more willing and able to speak about themselves, would be to find a way of being “drunk” while sober. They basically need to be able to be themselves while they are still themselves. As I have already stated, the danger of alcohol is that it can alter your reality, so what would be the point of being somebody that you are not? What teenagers really have to be able to do, is to discover who they are without the use of alcohol or any other stimulant. That way, not only do they stand a better chance of overcoming social hurdles and learning how to handle themselves in uncomfortable situations, but the things that they discover about themselves makes their growth real and not simply the spurious by-products of a drug.
 
Gary Koen is a clinical psychologist in private practice with over 20 years’ experience, working mainly with adults and adolescents. He also does presentations at schools on a range of teenage-related topics. These include all the general aspects of normal adolescent development. He developed and successfully runs a course, “An introduction to adolescence”, aimed at parents. He is also working on a book that deals with the challenges facing parents and teenagers and, as a father of three, he is heavily invested in everything he says. For more information, visit garykoen.co.za

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