The Plastic Brain: Open to All Outside Influences
In my last post we took a look at recent research confirming the brain’s intense “plasticity” during adolescence. Remember, the malleable nature of the brain allows teenagers to learn from experience and adapt to the environment. It is a quality that engenders more of the same; brains challenged and nourished during these years will develop into more resilient adult brains. Here, I discuss the darker side of this plasticity: how savagely their healthy development can be ambushed by negative influences. Parents, take heart! If we KNOW, PROTECT and HONOR our teenagers, we can help them make the most of their beautiful, delicate minds.
Dangers to the Plastic Brain: Drugs, Fatigue, Stress
The malleable nature of the adolescent brain is a primary reason kids shouldn’t use drugs during these years. There is a close association between exposure during puberty and adult addiction. In early adolescence—during puberty, especially—drugs like nicotine and alcohol (and worse) can permanently affect the brain. Regular use can do long-term damage and certainly it can begin a dangerous pattern of abuse. These substances mess with the reward system in the brain just as all that heavy re-wiring is taking place. A teenager’s high is more intense than an adult’s, remember, because they’re sensation-sponges (everything feels more intense). That awesome high can also turn more quickly into dependence.
When chemicals are introduced, the brain-under-construction gets used to relying on a foreign substance in order to experience even normal amounts of pleasure. A teenaged brain can quickly develop a need for the drug (or drink or chemical) in order to feel okay—it stops being about getting high and becomes about feeling normal. It is vital to respect their great susceptibility before the age of 15, but the brain remains in its super-malleable state into the twenties (Steinberg, 2015). I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again: under the age of 15 (approximately; why not just say 18 or 21 to be safe?), drug and alcohol use is a terrible idea for the developing brain. The consequences are serious and often permanent. Kids shouldn’t be experimenting and we should do everything we can to prevent access. Adolescent brains are also super-susceptible to other negative influences, such as stress and fatigue.
Their open-window brains are a liability but also an opportunity. Here, in these dark adolescent times, we have a shot at instilling lifelong healthy habits like regular exercise and a balanced diet. Both exercise and nutrition, of course, produce chemical reactions in the brain; surely we can help our kids make choices likely to fuel healthy development and protect them from lasting harm.
Teenagers Are Their Own Worst Enemies (and Ours).
It’s our job while they are growing to protect them from truly damaging influences on their development. It’s their job to rage against every boundary we set. They are predisposed to make reckless choices and we are tasked with keeping them safe. Holden Caulfield doesn’t mention if the kids he’s trying to save from running over that crazy cliff are simultaneously pelting him with rotten tomatoes and making his job impossible. Our teenagers are doing just that: trying to prevent us from doing our job of helping them. In this blog and at my speaking engagements, I try to give practical advice on how to find the fine line between loving them and strangling them. One of the very best things we can do for our children during these wild years is help them grow up with healthy, functioning brains.
The Best Shelter is A Good Brain.
Because the adolescent brain is young and malleable, parents really do have a shot at making a difference. Teenagers are impressionable; we can make an impression on them. I will beg you to look at the big picture, choose your battles, see the forest and ignore some of the trees. We cannot, of course, protect them from everything. Part of our job is preparing them to handle anything the big, wide world has to offer, including negative influences and personal setbacks. We can’t shelter them, even when we wish we could. I believe the best refuge we can give young adults is the shelter of really good brains that work well for the rest of their lives. (Here, I discuss this concept in greater detail.) Surely we can strive to help their brains grow and operate to full capacity, think critically, discern and synthesize and create. Most importantly, we can help them build brains that can self-regulate. If my kids grow up to be people who can delay gratification for later rewards and remain true to themselves despite external stimuli, I shall be quite pleased. (Here, a post on the goals of raising teens.)
Invincibility: It's Not Just an Adolescent Thing.
If parents think as carefully about the stimuli we provide our teenagers as we did when they were babes-in-arms, we can help protect them from the world and from themselves. We can stack the deck in their favor. We can make it more difficult for them to do really dangerous things when they feel reckless.
Believe it or not, teenagers basically understand the consequences of unprotected sex, drinking, smoking and not completing their homework. They just don’t think the consequences apply to them.
Before we write off their false confidence as another function of adolescence, consider this: when it comes to our health, people of all ages make choices we know are bad for us. Adults—like it or not—really do ask kids to “do as I say, not as I do.” Sure, teenagers feel invincible, but don’t we all? Our bad adult habits prove we feel invulnerable most of our lives. Even if their parents are models of personal health, think of the contradictory messages kids receive from the adult world. Think about advertising from their point-of-view: a lot of things that are bad for us sure look glamorous, everywhere we turn. Adults seem hypocritical to teenagers and often we are. The difference between them and us, however, is that plastic, post-pubescent, impressionable brain. They have too much to lose while their brains are still developing. It’s a matter of protecting them even when our rules for them are contrary to our own behavior.
How Do We Help Them and Their Impressionable Brains?
So maybe we all agree: we should do our best to keep kids away from drugs and other dangers. We should fuel their developing mind-grapes with healthy habits and lessons in responsibility. So how do we do that?
First, please go back and read this post: Seven Things Parents Can Do to Protect Their Teenagers.
In my next post I'll give more keepin'-it-real tips on how to help teenagers cultivate those prized adult skills: self-regulation, delayed gratification, critical thinking. By scaffolding learning and honoring the zone of proximal development, parents really can have an enduring (positive) influence on their kids. Be sure to tune in. Meanwhile, remember the importance of looking beyond Mama Bear and all her hibernating. While impressionable young people live in our homes, we've got to stay vigilant, lock liquor cabinets, go through backpacks, know their friends, and protect them the best we can.