Act Your Age: Does Adolescent Drug Use Stunt Emotional Intelligence?

adolescent drug use
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Drug and alcohol abuse can damage your overall health, but what kind of impact does adolescent drug use have on emotional development?

To answer this question, let’s meet Mitch and Brenda.

Mitch: A Case of Stunted Emotional Development

teenage substance useIn high school, Mitch had a hard time making friends and struggled academically. Frustrated, sad, and lonely, he turned to drugs to escape. His lifestyle of drug use continued for years.

Mitch is now 28 years old, but everyone who meets Mitch agrees he still acts like he’s 16. He lives with his parents, has not held a full-time job longer than six months, and has no interest in a committed relationship. It’s an unstable lifestyle.

Why was Mitch’s emotional development stunted?

Most experts agree that adolescent drug use can contribute to emotional stunting. When Mitch started using drugs, his teenage brain was not fully developed. The part of the brain responsible for reasoning, good judgment, and impulse control (the prefrontal cortex) was still growing.

And when he started using drugs, this still-developing part of his brain was impaired. Since this part of the brain never fully developed, he remained impulsive and emotionally immature (like a teenager).

Now, it’s hard for Mitch to handle — or even recognize — adult situations. He’s emotionally stuck due to his underdeveloped prefrontal cortex.

Brenda: A Case of Peter Pan Syndrome

Brenda’s emotional development was also stunted, but her story is different than Mitch’s.

Brenda never had a problem with adolescent drug use. She never experimented with drugs or alcohol as a teen. But as she approached adulthood, Brenda was unwilling to accept grown-up responsibilities.

Once she entered her mid-20s, Brenda had no plans for the future. She struggled with finances and didn’t contribute to chores or bills (while continuing to live with her parents). She was known to be flaky and unreliable. Her general outlook was that she could remain carefree for the rest of her life.

Brenda’s pattern of behavior is described as Peter Pan syndrome. While not an official mental diagnosis, it’s a widely recognized term used to describe adults like Brenda.

Adults with Peter Pan syndrome have aged physically, but not emotionally. Like Peter Pan, they never grew up, and they find adult responsibilities challenging. Instead of facing these responsibilities, they avoid them. This condition is also called “failure-to-launch syndrome.”

So what happened to Brenda? She didn’t have any goals, adults had little respect for her, and she experienced a lot of dismissal and rejection. Her self-esteem spiraled downward, and she began to feel depressed. Still unwilling to make changes and face adulthood, Brenda looked to drugs for an escape.

From there, it was a short journey to addiction and substance dependence. And once she became dependent on drugs, it became even harder for Brenda to take on any adult responsibilities. Now, she feels stuck in this cycle of emotional immaturity, continuing to use drugs as a way to cope with life.

Emotional Maturity is a Two-Way Street

These two stories demonstrate how drug use can stunt emotional growth — and how differently that can happen. In one case, drug use led to a lack of emotional growth. In the other, emotional immaturity led to drug use.

These two factors are closely tied. And both can create a spiraling effect that keeps the person emotionally stunted and dependent on drugs or alcohol.

Getting Past Stunted Emotional Growth

peter pan syndromeFortunately, all hope is not lost for Mitch or Brenda. It is possible for emotionally stunted individuals to emotionally age. People can recover from drug addiction and its effects, and they can learn to function as a healthy adults.

Believe it or not, a wealth of this emotional growth can happen in addiction recovery. With treatment, people tend to develop emotional maturity. How? By facing difficult emotions and receiving support to process those emotions in a healthy way.

Rather than turning to substances to deal with difficulties, you can learn how to face emotions and challenges, figure out why you feel the way you do, and take positive steps to handle those situations.

And by joining a support group, you can surround yourself with others who understand what you’re going through. They can help you achieve emotional growth because they’ve been where you are — and they are living proof that it’s possible to change.

If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available. Call 800-681-1058 (Info iconWho Answers?) now.


Images courtesy of Shutterstock

Kerry Nenn
Kerry Nenn, BSW
Expert Author, Editor
Kerry is a full-time freelance writer and author whose work has received awards both locally and nationally. Based in the Chicago area, she holds a bachelor’s degree in social work and psychology (BSW) from Evangel University. Kerry is a regular contributor to international newsletter publications, industry-leading consumer blogs, and Christian ministries.