Alcohol and teenage brain development

How parents can help their teenagers make good decisions

From the Head of Beanland House

In the 5th century BC, Plato wrote,

We know that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken… Shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up?

(The Republic)

On Tuesday 29 March 2011, we again welcomed to the School Mr Paul Dillon, an expert in the field of drug education for twenty-five years and founder of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA). Focusing in particular on the problems associated with alcohol consumption by teenagers, his presentations to students in Years 10, 11 and 12 and to parents were so well received that it merits revisiting in this issue of the BGGS News, particularly for parents who were unable to attend the evening session.

Mr Dillon’s evening presentation to parents provided a more positive and balanced perspective about young people today than some popular newspapers and current affairs programmes. He advised that this Year 10 cohort is the least likely of this age group in the last twenty years to use illicit drugs. Despite concern about analgesics, which are too widely used by 12-17 year old students, the majority of these students surveyed in 2008 do not use drugs (National Drug Strategy, 2009). The important message here is that taking drugs is not the norm – many young people today see drug use as uncool. This certainly provides affirmation to the vast majority of young people who do not use drugs.

Mr Dillon’s main concern in his presentation was alcohol consumption by young people. Confronting and unacceptable images of drunken young women can be seen on the internet and Facebook. Alcohol is the most frequently used drug by students 14 years and over, by far. Students surveyed for the National Drug Strategy in 2008 indicating they were current drinkers (had consumed alcohol in the past week) included a high number of Years 11 and 12 students, 34 to 36 per cent of whom were females (NDS, 2009). The percentage of these who were binge drinkers shows that this problem starts to increase at age 15. There is, however, a more positive perspective, given the percentage of students who regarded themselves as non-drinkers in this survey. 90 per cent of female 12 year olds and 63 per cent of female 14 year olds were non-drinkers. This is affirming to those who do not drink – they are not the only ones. Mr Dillon emphasised that young people need to know this. He outlined three categories – responsible drinkers, risky drinkers and non-drinkers – and urged parents to tell their children that it is okay to be a non-drinker.  It is okay to say no to alcohol. Parents are encouraged to talk with their daughters about this.

Mr Dillon raised the question: should parents provide alcohol to young people? His answer was an emphatic “No!” Is it harmful? “Definitely!” Most adults would by now have seen the Drinkwise advertisement produced by DARTA: This message is directed at parents, not at adolescents, urging them to delay their child’s first drink as long as possible. This view is supported by Professor Ian Hickie, Executive Director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney, who observes:

At this time, it is rapidly becoming clearer that alcohol and the teenage brain don’t mix… If one weighs up the available evidence concerning direct risks to brain development, short and long-term effects on cognitive and emotional development and risks of associated injury due to poor judgement and lack of inhibition, on balance, two conclusions now appear to be justified:

1. Alcohol should not be consumed by teenagers under the age of 18 years;  And,

2. Alcohol use is best postponed for as long as possible in late teenage and early adult years.   (2009, p3-4)

Mr Dillon explained that the adolescent brain completes its development much later than once thought, at 21 to 22 for females and 23 to 24 for males. The underdevelopment of the frontal lobes of the brain makes young people more likely to behave emotionally or go with their ‘gut reaction’. Adolescents tend to use an alternative part of the brain, the amygdala (emotions) rather than the prefrontal cortex (reasoning) to process information, leading to a decrease in reasoned thinking and inhibition and an increase in impulsiveness. The adolescent brain misses the part that says, ‘That could happen to me.’ When shown photos of accidents caused by alcohol abuse, adolescents think, ‘That is terrible but that will not happen to me.’ They do not think of consequences as adults do. As a result, teenagers are more likely to make some unwise decisions regarding alcohol, thereby placing themselves at greater risk on many levels.

Alcohol is dangerous to the developing brain. Hickie outlines how the brain develops in two basic stages: firstly, the growth spurt and overproduction of neurons stage occurs in utero, from 0-3, and 10-13 years and secondly, the pruning stage for 14 to 18 year olds when the brain prunes and works out neural pathways. How teenagers spend this time is crucial to brain development. As educators, we believe strongly that learning and critical thinking at school during this stage help to retain and strengthen the frequently used synapses, guiding the structure of the brain. Alcohol impairs this pruning in 14 to 18 year olds. Hickie states that excessive teenage drinking is associated with a reduction in the size of the hippocampus which is essential to short-term memory function. According to Mr Dillon, regular consumption of alcohol (weekly or fortnightly) by adolescents may reduce the size of the hippocampus by as much as 10 per cent. He also expressed concern that the prefrontal area of the brain associated with personality traits may also be affected by alcohol consumption at the developmental stage. The significant shift in teenage drinking patterns from beer to spirits with 35 to 50 per cent alcohol content, especially by young women, has serious implications for their brain development, thereby reducing their potential. Mr Dillon’s message to young people was this: do not drink regularly and drink less. He stated categorically that parents need to extend the age of initiation to alcohol and stop providing it. Stopping children getting alcohol is sometimes difficult but that is what parenting is about.

Should parents serve alcohol at a teenage party? Mr Dillon’s answer was emphatic: “Absolutely not!”  It is against the law. Secondary supply legislation states that adults are not permitted to supply alcohol to a young person without the express approval of parents and there are issues with failing to supervise. As many adults already know, it is impossible to monitor alcohol use at these parties or gatherings. If parents give alcohol to teenagers, they remove the barriers. He asked parents to hold onto this thought: they are not the only parent who does not provide alcohol to their child. Find other parents who are like-minded and create a network. He urged parents to understand that no expert could tell them what to do with their child regarding alcohol, rather the emphasis is on making informed decisions. If they believe that it is appropriate for their teenager to drink, they should not assume other parents feel the same way. Will simply not providing alcohol stop young people from drinking? Probably not! His advice was to not make it easy for them, and if they break rules, there should be consequences. Boundaries mean that they will probably drink less.

Research indicates that parents can make a difference and have a positive impact on children’s alcohol consumption, if they put their minds to it. We hear from the experts, such as psychologist and author Michael Carr-Gregg, that “raising adolescents today is a bit like trying to pick up mercury with a fork” (2002, p vi) and “talking to teenagers is like talking to a brick wall’ (Dillon, 2011). Sometimes it all seems too hard. Do not be disheartened. Joanne Deak (2002) has stated that although your daughter may not appear to be listening to you, she is in fact doing so. She may pretend she is not listening to a word you are saying, but keep talking because she is.  Your daughter needs your involvement and input, even though you may have to do it as gently as walking on eggshells. You may have been told that, ‘Everyone is doing it – everyone is allowed to have unsupervised parties, no curfew and alcohol at parties.’ Everyone is not doing it. If you have strong feelings, you must feel free to choose what you believe is the right path. Most parents have good instincts. Trust them when you are being pressured; you also need to feel that your parenting choices come from authentic places deep within you.

When discussing parenting styles, Carr-Gregg urges parents to set and monitor clear standards for their children’s conduct, be open to negotiation and provide calm explanations of the rationale behind those limits and boundaries (2006).  Mr Dillon’s final advice to parents was in a similar vein – say no to your children, regularly. Action speaks louder than words; follow up on consequences; teenagers understand action. Really listen to your child; power comes from connecting with your child. Tell your children they are great, all of the time!

Plato was indeed a wise man. Parents want to have input into the development of their precious children. Do not leave issues such as teenage alcohol consumption to any ‘casual person’.

Further information is available from:

Mrs L Chakravorty


Carr-Gregg, M. (2006). The Princess Bitchface Syndrome: Surviving adolescent girls. Australia: Penguin Books.

Carr-Gregg, M. & Shale, E. (2002). Adolescence: a guide for parents. Australia: Finch Publishing. 

Deak, J. (2002). Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters. New York: Hyperion.

Hickie, I.B. (2009). Alcohol and The Teenage Brain: safest to keep them apart. BMRI Monograph 2009-2. Sydney: Brain and Mind Research Institute.

National Drug Strategy (NDS) (2009). Australian secondary school students’ use of tobacco, alcohol, and over-the-counter and illicit substances in 2008. Retrieved  from

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