Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ulster Prevention Council Blog 10/9/13: Marijuana Part 2

Ulster Prevention Council blog: Marijuana Part 2

In my last blog I stated that unless we, the adults, are clear about the harm from marijuana, we will be sending mixed messages to youth. Let's talk about our approach.

In discussing potential harm, it is very important to work with adolescent development and not against it. I spent many years in the substance abuse treatment world, but it took a while to find a way to work with adolescents and not feel like I was banging my head, or theirs, against the wall. No wonder! I entered the field when confrontation and "breaking denial" were the biggest tools in the treatment arsenal. A key task of adolescence is struggling for autonomy. Arguing with youth generally leaves them even more entrenched in their original position. 

 So how do we work with adolescent brain development? We come alongside them, as a problem solving partner. We slow down and build trust, demonstrating that we respect them, can look at the issue from all sides and are willing to consider new information. We must actively undo their expectation that we intend to argue them out of their beliefs and behaviors. This process can't be rushed. At the same time, we continue to establish and maintain firm boundaries for safe behaviors.
  In addition, new research regarding adolescent brain research is very exciting and serves as a great starting point for discussions.

 The prefrontal cortex is a section of the brain that weighs outcomes, forms judgments and controls impulses and emotions. This area is the last to develop and, in fact, isn't fully developed until the early 20s. Use of mood altering substances during this period can be very damaging. An area of the teenager's brain that is fairly well-developed early on, though, is the nucleus accumbens,  the area of the brain that seeks pleasure and reward. 

 For most adults, climbing hotel balconies of skateboarding off roofs of houses sound like awful ideas. Their prefrontal cortex curbs any impulse to do so, because the possible negative outcomes outweigh any potential thrill. But teenagers may try these things because they're seeking a buzz to satisfy that reward center, while their prefrontal cortex can't register all the risks these actions entail.
 It's the combination of the developing prefrontal cortex and the heightened need for reward that leads to behavior that has adults asking "Why in the world did you do that?" and adolescents truthfully answering "I don't know!" 

Cheryl DePaolo
Director of Ulster Prevention Council