Protecting Teens’ Frontal Lobe From Drugs, Alcohol

Parents are always on the offensive when it comes to educating and shielding their children from addictive substances – even if they are not entirely sure why, short of the knowledge that mind altering substances are harmful. It has long been understood that teenage brains are still developing, making them extremely susceptible to outside influences and ever so vulnerable to the effects of drugs and alcohol.

The teenage years in life are often associated with emotional angst, rash decision making, and a sense of invincibility. Simply stated, the teenage mind is the perfect environment for poor decision-making, which can have a lasting impact on one’s life. This begs the question, why are teenagers more prone to impulsive behavior, compared to adults? The answer lies in the brain’s frontal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for decision-making, as we learned in a recent National Public Radio (NPR) report.

“Teenagers are not as readily able to access their frontal lobe to say, ‘Oh, I better not do this,’ ” says Dr. Frances Jensen, a neuroscientist and author of “The Teenage Brain”.

Jensen points out that the frontal lobe of adults has a protective insulation which speeds up signals, allowing them to think things through to their outcome. In teenagers, that area of the brain is not fully insulated, resulting in slower signals, according to the article.

“We have a natural insulation … called myelin,” Jensen says. “It’s a fat, and it takes time. Cells have to build myelin, and they grow it around the outside of these tracks, and that takes years.”

The brain’s frontal lobe may not be fully insulated until our late 20’s. The insulation process moves from the back of the brain forward, the frontal lobe being the last to achieve full development.

“The last place to be connected — to be fully myelinated — is the front of your brain,” Jensen says. “And what’s in the front? Your prefrontal cortex and your frontal cortex. These are areas where we have insight, empathy, these executive functions such as impulse control, risk-taking behavior.”

According to Family Recovery Specialists, “adolescents lack the “brakes” if you will and often have difficulty curbing their impulses and slowing down long enough to weigh the consequences of their actions. This is why we encourage early intervention and education for parents and children when substance abuse and other self-destructive behaviors are recognized.“

At Family Recovery Specialists we offer an At-Risk Program for adolescents and young adults that are experimenting or abusing substances but may not have a more serious problem. These individuals typically are in the early stages of substance use and often do not meet criteria for substance dependence. This program is more intensive than an individual/family therapy approach and provides education for the parents and the child, as well as individual therapy, family therapy and sometimes, a group component. The program also explores the underlying reasons for a child’s experimentation with substances and teaches tools for making better decisions and avoiding further consequences from substance use.

This is an early intervention program that can prevent a child from continued exploration and the consequences related to substance use. Research indicates adolescents and young adults are at much higher risk to develop addiction therefore early intervention is key and the At-Risk Program can provide the skills necessary to avoid the progression of substance abuse and chemical dependency. Parents are required to participate in this program as a major focus of our approach is to educate families and address any family dynamics that may be contributing to poor decision making in the young person. Let us tailor an individualized plan for your family and work toward a mutual goal of helping your loved one realize his or her potential and ability to live a happy, healthy and drug free lifestyle.

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