By: Heather R. Hayes, M.Ed., LPC, CAI, CIP
Many of us have heard that the brain doesn’t fully develop until around age 25, but not all of us know what that actually means. For one thing, it means that teens and young adults don’t have full access to all the executive functions of their brain that adults do, which contributes to many of the poor choices they may make during this stage of life. They may be able to see in retrospect why something was a bad idea, but in the moment, the pleasure-seeking, risk-taking part of the brain took over, and the lure of the excitement proved far too enticing—especially, it seems, for males.
Research shows that young men are 2-3 times more likely to have a drug or alcohol addiction than women and that they abuse alcohol significantly more than their female counterparts. Other studies show that teens who engage in heavy drinking (~20 drinks a month), show abnormalities in their white matter quality, brain structure volume, and cognitive task activation, and are far more likely to increase their drinking as they get older—ever worsening the problem. Over time, this leads to a poorer ability to plan for the future, use abstract reasoning skills, or problem solve. They are also compromised in their capacity to process information, remember things, and emotionally regulate themselves.
This sequence of events can also lead to developmental arrest. It’s been said that a person stops emotionally developing at the age they begin abusing substances. So, if a boy starts drinking or smoking marijuana at age 12—and continues abusing that substance through his adolescence—when he’s 22, he will still think and behave like he’s 12.
All of these facts clearly demonstrate how significantly substance abuse affects males from adolescence into adulthood, increasing their odds of struggling with addiction for the rest of their lives. So, as parents or educators of young men, it’s important to be aware of the fight for their minds and bodies that exists during these formative years.
Giving them the tools they need to cope with difficult emotions or experiences is a lifeline when the pull to numb out with drugs or alcohol is particularly strong. Providing them opportunities to explore their interests and engage in meaningful and interesting work or activities positively channels all of that energy into outlets that can serve them well throughout their lives.
Though the challenge of keeping our young men out of addiction may seem great at times, focusing our attention on effective preventative strategies and consistent support and care can make an enormous difference for them and future generations of men after them.