This section focuses on alcohol after a brain injury but a lot of the information will also apply to using recreational drugs.
Research shows that children and young people who have conversations with their parents and learn about the potential dangers of alcohol are 50% less likely to use alcohol and drugs than those who don’t have such conversations.1
Parents and carers will often want to educate young people about the dangers of alcohol. But it’s not always an easy topic to discuss and you might worry that you sound patronising or overbearing.
We hope the information here will help you support and educate your child in decision-making and alcohol.
You might like to explain to your child that you understand that you can't make decisions for them, but that you want them to understand the possible risks and effects. If you feel it’s appropriate, you could look at the information in this section together.
Making decisions about alcohol is often part and parcel of being a teenager and growing up. This can sometimes be a daunting thought for parents and caregivers, especially if your child has also had a brain injury.
Pleasure versus risk
Drinking alcohol is often linked to a feeling of pleasure and fun. It can help people feel more relaxed and less shy.
Many people drink alcohol safely and in moderation. But drinking alcohol can present risks for anyone, whether we are talking about an adult, teenager or child.
Research suggests that the teenage brain multiplies the ‘danger’ of drinking alcohol in comparison to adults.2 And having a brain injury can make it even more dangerous. There are no guidelines that say there is a safe limit of alcohol for teenagers.
Teenage drinking: what you should know
- Alcohol slows down brain activity.
- Studies show that it takes only half the alcohol to damage the adolescent brain than it takes to damage an adult one.3
- Our brains can usually recover from this damage. But alcohol damages important parts involved in memory and learning. And memory and learning difficulties might already be a problem for teenagers with a brain injury.2
- Drinking large amounts of alcohol may lead to behaviour that could result in another brain injury.
- In the long-term, alcohol can cause damage to the brain, additional to a brain injury, and to other organs. This is usually if someone drinks to extremes and has little control over their drinking habits. This can take years to develop and can lead to other health problems.4
Why drinking alcohol can be a problem for people who have had a brain injury? 5
Alcohol affects people’s behaviour, experiences and feelings as it changes the way in which brain cells work.
After a brain injury some parts of the brain will have been damaged. And problems caused by a brain injury can become bigger after drinking alcohol.
Alcohol can slow down recovery
Drinking alcohol can slow down a person’s recovery. The repair process within the brain may not work as it should when you have been drinking alcohol.
Balance, walking and talking
For some teenagers and young people with a brain injury they will have problems with balance, walking and/or talking.
You probably know that alcohol can cause problems with these things even for people who don’t have a brain injury. So if a person already has problems with balance, walking or talking, they are likely to find that these difficulties get worse after drinking alcohol.
Loss of inhibition in actions and words
Alcohol can make people say and do things that they wouldn’t normally do. Again, a brain injury can also cause this; it can make people do risky things or say things that they probably shouldn’t.
Alcohol makes people less shy about saying and doing certain things. And it can often leave the person feeling embarrassed the next day when they have sobered up.
This loss of inhibition and control could put a person in a position where others can take advantage of them.
The memory loss that can result from taking alcohol and certain drugs can be alarming and is similar to what can happen after a brain injury. After a heavy night of drinking people often forget certain parts of the evening or might not remember what happened for the entire night.
These memory problems can be made worse if you have a brain injury. It can be embarrassing or can make the person worry about what they did; if they did something that might have harmed themselves or others. This worry can also lead to feeling down or depressed which is described below.
Alcohol is known as a ‘depressant’. A depressant is a substance that gives people a ‘downer’; it makes them feel low or depressed.
There are many drugs that also fit into this category. Often, young people who have had a brain injury are, understandably, dealing with mental health issues which can include depression.
Drinking alcohol might be seen as a way of ‘numbing’ these feelings but in the long run can make the problems worse.
Some people who have had a brain injury have seizures or ‘fits’. Alcohol and drugs can make it even more likely for someone to have a seizure even if they don’t usually have a lot of them. Alcohol can stop anti-seizure medication from working.
Alcohol and decision-making
Drinking alcohol can be risky, particularly for someone who has had a brain injury. It’s important to remember that alcohol and making choices surrounding alcohol is part of growing up. But by knowing what might happen as a result of drinking may help your child make the right choices, know when to say no and know when to stop.
Research shows alcohol can have a much worse effect on teenagers and adults with a brain injury than those without.6 Many will choose not to drink, limiting the risks. However, for some people who have suffered a brain injury, drinking in moderation is part of socialising.
Supporting your child
As we have already mentioned, you might want to read this section with your child, as a way of informing you both of the extra risks associated with drinking alcohol after a brain injury.
Keep in mind that many young people will choose to drink alcohol at some stage. But by being informed they are more likely to make better decisions on consumption levels and staying safe.
You may feel tempted to punish your child or restrict them from certain things if you find out they have been drinking alcohol. However, we suggest going through this information with them and trying to answer any questions they may have.
Research suggests that parents can influence their children's future use of alcohol by talking it through with them.7
If you have any concerns or are worried about your child or teenager and their consumption of alcohol, talk to their GP who will be able to provide you with additional support.
Alcohol after a brain injury – key points
- Talking to your child about alcohol consumption is a good way of supporting them in their decision-making.
- There are no guidelines on safe limits of alcohol for teenagers.
- Drinking alcohol can multiply common effects of a brain injury, such as difficulties with balance, memory or speech.
- Alcohol can affect anti-seizure medication.
- Research shows alcohol can have a much worse effect on teenagers and adults with a brain injury than those without.
Other sources of help
Drinkaware website has a page dedicated to teenage drinking and advice on talking to your child about alcohol. If you would like to talk to someone directly for support you can call the helpline on 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am–8pm, weekends 11am–4pm).
NHS provides information on the effects of alcohol misuse on the body.
Family Lives provides some great information on underage drinking and advising your child on how to make sensible choices.