Peer Pressure to Drink: How the Teen Brain Responds

Teen Thinking


Peer pressure is a powerful weapon in the fight against underage drinking — it can have either a positive or a negative impact. When teenagers encourage their friends to make good grades, to be nice to each other, or to avoid alcohol, that’s positive peer pressure. Alternatively, when teenagers encourage each other to misuse alcohol or drugs, that’s negative peer pressure.

Teenagers are more susceptible to peer pressure to drink than adults, and it’s all to do with their growing brains.

Peer Pressure and the Growing Brain

The human brain isn’t fully developed until about age 25, and that’s why underage drinking is so dangerous. Alcohol has a harsher impact on kids and teens than it does on adults. But, not only does alcohol impact the growing brain, the developing brain also impacts a young person’s judgment and decision to drink differently than it would an adult.

Judgement Control

The emotional areas of the brain mature before the frontal cortex. That explains the thrill-seeking, risky decision-making, and impulsiveness often associated with adolescence.

The immaturity of the frontal cortex also explains why the adolescent brain responds more to both the promise of rewards and to threats than the adult brain. They weigh immediate rewards and threats (especially social threats) as more valuable than future rewards or consequences.

This “brain imbalance” is why adolescents pay lots of attention to their peers. It also explains why they are more likely to do something risky without considering the consequences.

Understand the Growing Brain

A great way to help your child face peer pressure to drink is to explain how alcohol impacts the growing brain. Talk about this with your child so they can face peer pressure head-on — and perhaps even be a positive influence on their friends.

Five Ways Alcohol Impacts the Growing Brain

  1. Brain Activity – Alcohol slows down brain activity, and the negative effect lasts up to two weeks in a teenager’s brain (much longer than for adults).
  2. Proper Development – If a teenager uses alcohol before his or her brain is fully developed, it can keep the good judgment and impulse-control part of the brain from properly forming.
  3. Memory Damage – Youth is amazing, and your child will want to remember it fondly. Alcohol can damage the memory and learning areas of the brain, making it difficult to keep those happy memories alive.
  4. Difficulty Learning – Does your child have a big test coming up? Do they want to get into a good college? To keep up the grades, they need to stay away from alcohol. Alcohol effects learning more in adolescents, and it interferes with other “brain health” behaviors.
  5. Lifetime of Problems – Underage drinking can “wire” the brain for alcoholism. The chances of becoming an alcoholic are 40 percent for kids who begin drinking before age 15. That’s compared to 7 percent for someone who waits until age 21.

Start the Conversation about Peer Pressure

Make sure your kids know they can come to you if they face peer pressure to drink. You can offer advice, help them figure out how to respond to peer pressure, and come up with a game plan if they find themselves in a tricky situation.

If your kids understand how alcohol impacts their growing brains differently, and why they are more susceptible to peer pressure, it may help them avoid underage drinking.

Click here to take the pledge to Talk It Out and stop underage drinking!