Adolescent Brain and the Adolescent brain on Drugs
By Ned Wicker
I think I’m like most people who used to believe that the brain matured at the end of childhood. Wow, how could I have been that wrong? Do parents know this? Probably not. The brain actually doesn’t mature until a person reaches 24 years of age.
The reason why this is important is that it should send a shocking warning signal to parents that their teenaged son or daughter is at high risk for trouble if they take drugs.
The idea of a developing brain on drugs is just, well, scary. The brain develops in sections. Picture this as being development from back to front. First to develop is the motor coordination and sensory processing in the cerebellum, in the back of the brain. Next, the nucleus accumbens, regulating motivation, kicks in. The amygdale, controlling emotions develops next. Finally the prefrontal cortex, regulating judgment is finished.
That is exactly why physical development does not correspond with mental and emotional development. Take as look at high school athletes. We see a man-child out on the field, who has the ability to score touchdowns, dunk a basketball or throw a baseball 90 miles per hour, but he is still a child. Teenaged girls, who may have begun developing sexually as early as the fourth grade, are still children.
As the brain develops, we move into adulthood. If the brain is not allowed to fully develop, or that development is slowed because of drugs, you can see that the child is in serious jeopardy of having problems.
I mentioned the physical development. Even that is not complete during the early teen years. I umpire baseball, and I can tell you that one of my pet peeves is adults teaching kids how to throw a curve ball before they are in high school. To be truthful, I don’t like the curve ball even in freshman and junior varsity games. The elbow is still developing, so the curve, which places a great deal of pressure on the elbow, is a very bad idea.
‘Oh, but my Johnny is level headed.’ Don’t count on it. Remember, the front part of the brain, which regulates judgment, is the last to develop. Bad planning and bad judgment are hallmarks of teenage existence. Teenagers like activities with high excitement and low effort. They can’t necessarily control their emotions, so the hot emotions come out quicker than the cooler ones. They are interested in experimenting and teens are known for thinking that smoking, drinking or taking drugs is ‘mature.’ Children graduate from high school, then go off to college in the fall and all too often indulge in binge drinking and experiment with drugs.
Parents can’t raise their kids in a bubble, but they need to know what’s out there and how that can impact their child’s life. If a child is not fully capable of making a good decision, parents can help them form a good plan by openly discussing drug use with them. Let this discussion be a discussion, not a lecture. Be aware of what your kids are doing. The last thing you need is to be shocked someday to discover that ‘Little Johnny’ is smoking pot, or the life of the beer party, or the ‘go to’ guy for good drugs. Your son may shave, but that doesn’t make him a man. Your daughter may be 17, going on 25, but that doesn’t make her an adult. They are still children.
Ned Wicker is the Addictions Chaplain at Waukesha Memorial Hospital Lawrence Center