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Judith Grisel, Ph.D., an addiction expert, narrates her first taste of alcohol – drinking wine at the age of 13 – in a way that could describe any teenager’s experience.
“I felt like Eva should have after trying the apple. Or how a bird hatched in a cage would feel if it were unexpectedly released, ”recalls Dr. Grisel lively in her book Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction. “The drug provided physical relief and a mental antidote to the ongoing restlessness that I couldn’t identify or share. Alcohol was a strong unconscious recognition of my desperate pursuits for self-acceptance and existential ends and my inability to negotiate a complex world of relationships. Fears and hopes. “
Drinking or consuming other medications can provide “an easy walk through the difficulty of growing up” and trigger a descent into substance abuse, says Dr. Grisel, a recovering neuroscientist for over 30 years and a professor of psychology at Bucknell University.
After her introduction to alcohol, Grisel spent 10 years as a daily user and later a college dropout on a harrowing journey that took her to shabby motels and interacting with questionable people looking for drugs of all kinds and at all costs. But why do some young people end up on this dangerous path?
And do parents play a role in prevention?
Teen substance use today
Some research suggests that expanded legalization of pots in many states in the country has been linked to higher rates of marijuana use among teens under the age of 18 (for whom it is still not legal) in those states. This is another reason for parents to be preventative.
While adolescent use of most drugs has declined during the pandemic, alcohol and cannabis use among adolescents has increased, according to research in the Journal of Adolescent Health, first published online in July. This included an increase in sole use of these substances, which researchers say is linked to increased COVID-19 anxiety and symptoms of depression.
Many other factors can affect when and how often teenagers turn to drugs or alcohol.
As Grisel notes in her book, genetics can certainly play a role in determining who is more prone to addiction. The more DNA a person shares with an addict, the higher the risk of addiction. Even children of addicts who were adopted immediately after birth continue to be at increased risk of addiction.
But what happens at home also affects the chances of teens developing substance use problems. This is true not only when parents are addicted to illegal drugs like cocaine, but also when caretakers are allowed to drink with teenage children.
Results of the study evaluating substance use during the pandemic “suggest that a surprisingly large number of adolescents consumed substances from parents during the COVID-19 crisis.” The result is that when adolescents participate with their parents, lower rates of severe Alcohol use, cannabis and vaping are reported. However, the study’s authors point out that while children tend to drink in moderation around their parents, previous research has shown that they are more likely to drink at high risk when consuming alcohol outside the home.
We know that young brains develop and are therefore more susceptible to drugs. But what teenagers and their parents may not appreciate is that the same impulsive decisions can affect neurological development. Drug use can permanently change the structure of the brain.
These changes in brain structure can lead to cognitive and behavioral deficits. For example, a sibling comparison study of 1,192 adolescents from 596 families who were found to use cannabis more frequently and start using it earlier was associated with poorer cognitive performance, particularly with regard to verbal memory tests. More studies are needed to confirm the results, which contrast with previous twin studies. However, the authors of the study, published in Addiction magazine in September, report that even moderate marijuana use (about twice a week on average) can have negative effects.
Research has shown that changes in the brain due to early drug exposure also increase drug use or drug addiction behavior, Grisel points out in Never Enough.
There are many environmental factors that could force adolescents who are risk-prone to use drugs. These factors include everything from economic status and education to physical or sexual abuse.
Of course, family stability plays a major role. Changes at home or family stress can increase the risk of a teen becoming addicted to drugs. As with some other environmental factors, it can be difficult to define or quantify what constitutes problematic family stress, as Grisel notes. COVID-19 has contributed to almost every stress and threatened stability for many.
Nevertheless, even in stable times there is no way to completely avoid conflicts. It is important to seek peace at home. This includes addressing drug or alcohol addiction problems that parents may face themselves.
For parents who find that their children are using drugs, there are no easy answers. However, a good place to start is to seek professional help. And whether it’s preventing problem drug use or breaking free from addiction, healthy relationships are a crucial component. Grisel emphasizes the need for such “honest connections”.
For Grisel, it was her father who reconnected with her after refusing to speak to her at the height of her addiction – or even admitting he had a daughter – which made a huge difference in her recovery. “Although there were several turning points in my trajectory, it seems profoundly significant that the material change began … when my father inexplicably changed course and took me with him for my 23rd birthday.” Grisel remembers that his willingness to be seen with her and to treat her with kindness “broke my defensive shell of rationalizations and justifications. It broke open the lonely heart that neither of us knew I still had. “
In contrast, Grisel and other addiction experts emphasize that people who feel isolated or alienated, like so many teenagers during the pandemic, are much more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol and have a harder time breaking free from the addiction. While we are still learning about all the factors that make addiction so insoluble, according to Grisel we have enough data to understand that our brain is not only shaped by individual biology. “And of all these influences, our connections with one another are perhaps the most immediate and powerful, and therefore potentially helpful in making change happen,” she says.
For parents looking for answers, making your relationship with your teen a priority – difficult as it may be to connect at times – is an important starting point.
Copyright @ 2020 by Susan Newman