When I was a little girl, my parents told me that I was never to be with one of my favorite relatives again. If he came home while I was visiting, I was to leave right away. I was confused. This relative had always been kind, gentle, and sweet. They explained that his brother had recently died and that he had started drinking more alcohol than usual to try to feel better. Instead, he became an alcoholic and the pain was worse, not better. The alcohol was now making him into a completely different person and he wasn’t safe anymore. They told me there were many alcoholics in our family history and alcoholism can be inherited. No one chooses to become one, and it’s very hard to stop drinking once it happens. In later years, he would become dangerously violent and even attempt to kill someone. I decided then that I would never drink at all. Then there would be no chance I would become an alcoholic. Knowing what I know now, I’m glad I made that choice so young.
Studies show that teens who drink are much more likely to become an alcoholic than people who wait until they are adults. If you start drinking when you are thirteen, you have a 45 percent chance of becoming an alcoholic. That means almost half of thirteen-year-olds who drink become alcoholics. Everyone likes to think nothing bad can happen to them, but the truth is that bad things can happen to anyone. No one is so special he or she can’t become an alcoholic—even if there is no history of it in your family.
Even if you don’t become an alcoholic, other things are going to happen to you inside your brain and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Here are some of the things that will begin to change in your brain if you start drinking before you are 21:
- You will have more social problems. Even though you might think you are drinking to help you fit in, the truth is that you will have more trouble getting along with people, understanding them, and keeping friendships. The parts of your brain that help you understand social skills will be damaged and you will not be able to think clearly enough to make good choices.
- Your hippocampus might be ten percent smaller than the hippocampus of teens who don’t drink. No, we’re not talking about a zoo animal school. Your hippocampus is the part of the brain that helps you learn and remember. This means you’ll do worse in school (and have to study even longer hours to remember things) and you’ll forget important things, even fun important things.
- The part of the brain that helps you make choices is damaged and while you are drinking, you will also be less able to make good choices. If you get drunk, you may find out the next day you did some things that are really embarrassing and might even ruin your entire life. Stay in charge by not letting alcohol make your choices for you.
- The part of the brain that controls impulsive behavior is damaged. This means you’ll make snap decisions without thinking them through. Do you really want your life decided by instant decisions you haven’t thought about?
- Teens who drink do worse in school, get into more trouble, and are less likely to fulfill their goals. Is it worth it?
You won’t be a teenager forever and your whole life is affected by the choices you are making right now, including choices about alcohol. If you’re drinking, stop. The sooner you stop, the less damage you’ll do to your brain and your life.
A new study shows kids in Utah are less likely to drink than anywhere else. No, you don’t have to move to Utah to stop drinking or to not start, although if you’re in Utah, you might find more friends who also don’t drink. Many of them don’t drink because they are Mormon. In fact, most of the states that have low numbers of teens who drink are in states with a lot of religious teens. Attending a church where people choose not to drink at any age gives you a great support network when you don’t want to drink. If you don’t want to go to church, find friends who don’t drink. There are more of them than you think. It’s really hard to avoid alcohol when your friends use it.
When I was in high school, my friends started drinking. I didn’t really know how to get out of the group and I didn’t like being made fun of for not drinking, so I went to a school counselor for help. She changed my schedule so I didn’t have classes or lunch with them anymore and I quickly found new friends whose standards were more like mine. If you don’t know how to get out of your crowd, don’t be afraid to help. Your parents, teachers, or counselors will be more than happy to help you figure it out.
Learn more about what happens to the teen brain when you drink.