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
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
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!"
Director of Ulster Prevention Council