Teen Brain More Vulnerable to Alcohol's Effects: Expert Speaks to Mamaroneck Parents

On Tuesday, April 17th, parenting and prevention expert Mike Nerney addressed an audience of 160 parents from Larchmont and Mamaroneck at the Hommocks Auditorium. His topic was “Why Teens Shouldn’t Drink, and How Parents Can Make a Difference." his speci


The below article is user-generated content from local parent Jennifer Conley. 

According to Nerney, the human brain is not fully developed until ages 21-25. He said that if medical experts had their way, the drinking age would be 24, but the alcohol lobby would never allow it. While the adult brain is generally calmed by alcohol, the teen brain is stimulated and energized by it.   Teen brains are so full of grey matter that they have a harder time assessing situations and making good decisions than adult brains with refined white matter and executive functioning.  In addition, the teen brain craves the neurotransmitters associated with risk, which explains why teens are attracted to alcohol and risky behaviors.

When asked if alcohol is bad for the teenage brain, Nerney’s answer was a resounding “Yes.” He quoted one study that showed that a year of heavy drinking could damage 10 percent of a teen’s cerebral cortex and 10 percent of his or her hypothalamus, which is where emotional intelligence is centered.  When Nerney met earlier in the day with 10th grade Mamaroneck High School (MHS) students during health class, he asked them if they would trade 20 percent of their brain for the privilege of getting drunk with friends.  Nerney’s main message to parents and students alike is that teens should delay the use of alcohol as long as possible to allow their brains to develop to maturity.   

Nerney admitted to the crowd that this is the time of year that always makes him the most nervous as a prevention expert because it is end-of-school party season.  He said that between 700 and 780 high school kids in the U.S. die every year between mid-April and mid-June in alcohol-related fatalities.  He encouraged parents to take this data seriously, especially when making decisions about spring break trips and after-prom parties.  He not only warned of driving accidents and alcohol poisoning; he said that sexual assault is a serious risk when teens and alcohol mix.   Teens use alcohol because it makes them less inhibited; but the dark side of this is that alcohol makes teens twice as likely to get into fights, twice as likely to be involved in date rape and twice as likely to use technology in cruel ways. 

Nerney’s tone was not alarmist or moralistic, but reasonable and realistic.  And he encouraged parents to approach their kids the same way.  Educate them about the dangers, share your concerns, and tell them about the science.   Whatever you do, don’t duck the issue.   When one parent in the crowd suggested that teens don’t listen to parents, Nerney reassured the room that teens do listen to parents much more than we realize.  They won’t thank you politely for your wisdom, but they will internalize your values for use when you’re not around. 

To help parents communicate with teens, Nerney had a few ideas to share. Eat meals together five times a week, and make sure these meals aren’t “corrective or remedial” in nature.  They should be positive experiences that encourage comfort and bonding.  (Don’t use dinner to discuss the disappointing progress report). When a teen comes home and seems emotional, give him or her an hour alone to regroup before you start asking a million questions.  Always praise publicly, correct privately.  Have difficult conversations in a dark car or doing a side-by-side task; avoid direct eye contact, as this produces anxiety in teens and will cause them to shut down.  Offer your help and concern, then stop talking so that your teen will actually have time to think and respond (Those “awkward silences” can make all the difference in allowing your kid to open up, so let them happen).

With regard to alcohol-specific protocols, Nerney echoed the theme of the campaign, “Be a Parent, Not a Friend.”  He suggested letting kids know you expect them not to drink, having curfews to limit the hours of risk, and follow through on sensible consequences if rules are broken.   He also recommended that parents and teens establish a code together, in case a teen wants to extricate him or herself from a bad situation.   For example, if your teen calls and says, “Mom, is Uncle Bryan coming tonight,” you know she wants you to go and pick her up.  Nerney said teens use these codes more than you’d expect; but even if your teen never uses the code, he or she knows you are concerned for her welfare and always have her back.   

Finally, Nerney suggested that parents help teens find healthy activities and outlets that satisfy their teenage need for risk and socialization.   Playing sports, acting on stage, rock climbing, scuba diving, and community service projects…anything is better than gathering for the sake of drinking.   Ultimately, the better you understand and respect their needs, the easier it is to be an effective, confident parent. 

To see Mike Nerney’s talk for yourself, check the LMC-TV schedule here.

Ajax the Great May 16, 2012 at 08:01 PM
This is typical junk science. There is zero hard evidence that drinking at 18 is significantly more harmful than drinking at 21 or even 25. And the claim about losing 20% of one's brain--I notice that the guy did not actually cite the study. For all we know, it could have been a study done on rats or mice given extremely high doses. Many of the studies cited by the pro-21 crowd are exactly that, in fact. Even if it does apply to humans, it apparently looked at HEAVY drinking, not moderate drinking. And excessive drinking is bad at ANY age, not just people under 21 or 25. THAT should be the moral of the story, not "don't drink a drop until 21 or 25", which is highly unrealistic since about 90% of Americans will drink at least somewhat before turning 21, and an even greater number will before 25. Let America be America again, and lower the drinking age to 18. If you're old enough to go to war, you're old enough to go to the bar. 'Nuff said.


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