As parents, we want our children to be independent thinkers. We consider it our job and responsibility to teach our kids to use logic and reason, rather than just going along with their friends or peers when we are not there to coach them. The more parents inform their adolescents about the dangers and pitfalls of alcohol and drug abuse, the easier it will be to have the right discussions before major events like prom and graduation parties.
Why Parental Input Is Significant
Many physical and emotional changes continue to occur from age 10 to 16 through 18 years old, (and beyond). Parents and adolescents see some of these significant changes and they are aware of increases in shoe size, the changing size of clothing, and how differently swimsuits fit from year to year.
Our brains are not visible, so we are not always aware that the brain changes during these years are as significant as those we can see in our feet. The adolescent brain is growing and developing as much as every other part of a young person’s body. The difference is that brains are intensely dependent on chemical balance for healthy formation and functioning. (3)
Science of the Brain
When the chemistry of the frontal cortex part of the brain is distorted, mental abilities that are controlled by this part of the brain can continue to dysfunction for the rest of a person’s life. Many teenagers can hear this message and not really get the impact that drinking or doing drugs will have on their future abilities. Neuroscientist Nora Volkow has devoted her professional life to studying the effects of alcohol, and drugs on this part of the brain. (1)
Without the frequent input from parents and adult figures in a teenager’s life, adolescents cannot grasp the permanence of wrong choices, and how risking unnecessary brain dysfunction will limit their choices later in life. “The pre-frontal cortical regions in the brain are where we develop self-control and the survival responses that connect with our reward responses.” (2)
Everything that has to do with immediate gratification, impulse control, risky behaviors, and forming addictions is controlled by this frontal area of our brains. If the chemistry is altered while young people are still developing in this area, the circuitry in the brain can be dramatically rewired. Then as adults, humans are not able to develop normal mental responses to typical stimuli.
Mature, healthy brains send accurate messages telling us to wait, or that we have had enough of something, we learn to avoid dangerous and unhealthy situations through reasoning and intellect. The part of our brains that assist us in self-control are important to every area of functioning from socialization, organizational thought, to common sense in decision-making, and controlling our own behaviors.
Caring but Firm
Parents need to have heart-felt, patient discussions with their teens about why some people think they need substances like marijuana and alcohol to “have fun.” They can help their kids debunk the myths and assumptions their friends may be making. The key is to avoid thinking, “Whew, we got that done.” Teenagers are not able to hear something once and get it down. They need to hear the same concepts from different approaches, even if they protest.
Some limits on teen freedoms are important until they have fully matured. For example: curfews. Kids are less inhibited when tired, hungry, and even without supervision for an extended period. Help your kids understand the value of having boundaries, they are meant to help not hurt us.
- Work together on an agreement of behavior for a special event like a graduation party, prom night, and other celebrations.
- Make them take reasonable responsibility for the safety of their friends, by being the designated driver, but give them back up by offering assistance. They can call you without any threat of punishment or judgment if they need to ask you to help them during any situation.
- Talk about being an example of positive peer influence to others in their group.
- Parents know what teen parties are generally like, be accepting that there will be wrong behaviors happening. Assure your kids that they can avoid those behaviors, but if things get out of hand, you will assist them.
- Offer an option of a signed contract, they will not drink or take drugs, or whatever your concerns, and you sign up for non-judgmental assistance in any emergency or situation
Adults who keep their cool, remain forgiving of their teens’ immature brain functions, and keep focused on the ultimate rewards of teaching their kids to protect their brains, often find their kids are more cautious and responsive.
- Nora Volkow, “Brain in Progress: Why Teens Can’t Always Resist Temptation”, TEDMED, January 27, 2015, http://blog.tedmed.com/?p=6310http://blog.tedmed.com/?p=6310.
- Nora Volkow, “Brain in Progress: Why Teens Can’t Always Resist Temptation”, NIH – National Institute on Drug Abuse, January 27, 2015, http://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/noras-blog/2015/01/brain-in-progress-why-teens-cant-always-resist-temptation.
- The NIDA Blog Team, “Traumatic Brain Injury, Drug Addiction, and the Developing Teen Brain”, NIDA for Teens, March 19, 2015, http://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/traumatic-brain-injury-drug-addiction-and-developing-teen-brain.
- Diagram courtesy of WikiPedia, 2015, “Cortex praefrontalis”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prefrontal_cortex