Monthly Archives: February 2015

  • Marijuana Use Linked to Lower IQ

    Last week we looked at the effects of alcohol on the developing teenage brain, and marijuana use is just as detrimental. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) recently released a study that researched the long term effects of marijuana use. The results included MRI scans that observed physical changes in the brain and reveal chronic marijuana use can actually lower the IQ by five points. This is particularly the case when use begins at an early age.  Because the human brain continues developing into the mid-twenties, regular exposure to toxic substances can hinder its healthy maturation. It is essential, then, that we talk to children at an early age about the potential damage of the use of this substance.

    According to a CNN report, Dr. Susan Weiss, associate director of Scientific Affairs at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says the PNAS study “showed that the orbitofrontal cortex, an area involved in reward, decision making and motivation, was smaller in heavy users.” Teens engaging in marijuana use risk interfering with their ability to function at peak capacity and are therefore robbed of meeting their fullest potential.

    With recent trends of increasing legal access to marijuana, it is timelier than ever that we talk to children and teens about the effects of the drug’s use on the brain and body. In the eyes of the teenager, the evolving legal status implies a green light to use. However, just because something is legal does not mean it is necessarily safe. Informing teens of the negative consequences of substance use, as well as equipping them with the skills they need to make responsible decisions, can keep them healthy and substance-free.

  • Still Growing

    The development and application of  social emotional skills, coupled with drug awareness education, inform teens of the serious negative consequences of underage drinking, substance use, and other risky behaviors, while preparing them to resist experimenting in the first place.  What until recently was not fully understood is underage drinking and substance use can alter the healthy development of the teenage brain with long-term consequences on aptitude executive function.

    A recent Fresh Air interview on NPR, featuring Frances E. Jensen, MD, discusses the topic of her new book, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.  Her book explores the nuances of the developing teenage brain, and outlines the ways in which teenage substance use affects that development.  Jensen says, “The effects of substances are more permanent on the teen brain.  They have more deleterious effects and can be more toxic to the teen than the adult.”

    Contrary to past myths of the physical resiliency of teens, current research shows the human brain is developing well into the twenties.  Therefore, underage drinking and substance use can potentially impair development and lead to permanent brain damage.  Jensen says “drinking can actually kill brain cells in the adolescent brain where it does not to the same extent in the adult brain.” The frontal cortex—the area of the brain directly related to memory and decision-making—is one of the last areas to develop.  Teens engaging in drinking or substance use risk compromising their level of executive function.

    Children equipped with solid social emotional skills sets, as well as an awareness of the negative consequences of underage drinking and substance use, are better able to make responsible decisions that will keep them on track to reaching their goals.  They realize there is much at stake, and they are well-informed to make choices that will keep them substance-free.

  • Speak Up... And Lend an Ear

    Effective communication skills are key to resilient living.  Communication is the means by which we interact with the world, and how we communicate plays a large role in determining the outcomes of our actions and relationships.  Children who communicate effectively are better able to make responsible decisions, stay true to their goals, and develop healthy relationships, because they can advocate their needs, seek help when necessary, and reject unhealthy pressures and influences.

    Dr. Carol Seefeldt writes in Scholastic that with effective communication skills “children can listen and learn from others, discuss ideas, and gain ever more knowledge of the world in which they live.” First, children must learn to differentiate healthy and unhealthy communication styles in order to adopt an effective communication style of their own.

    Our body language speaks to others before we even speak.  For example, an interviewee who enters an interview with slumped shoulders and averted eyes will come across too passive. However, an interviewee who enters the interview with good posture and direct eye contact will come across assertive. The interviewer will take this into consideration and formulate an impression before the interviewee has a chance to answer questions. By discerning between these two communication styles, children learn that assertive behavior is more direct and honest, thereby portraying a confidence and readiness to perform.

    Listening skills are also essential to effective communication. Children learn how to listen by mirroring those who listen to them, but an understanding of the role of non-verbal cues conveys a message to children as well. Dr. Seefeldt writes that educating children by “fostering the conventions of communication, helping children learn to look, to take turns, and to negotiate verbal conflicts” develops an understanding of what it means to empathize with others.  Teaching children to identify and adopt healthy listening skills, such as focusing on what the speaker is saying, smiling and nodding, and asking clarifying questions prevents miscommunication and facilitates stronger relationships.

    The above skills lead to the capacity to develop healthy relationships. As Dr. Seefeldt writes, “Children who look at the child they are talking with, who understand turn taking when communicating, and who know how to solve verbal conflicts are those who make and keep friends easily.” Effective communication helps children navigate challenging situations and peacefully resolve conflict. As a result, they are more likely to share their ideas and feelings with others, which promote enhanced cooperation and healthy bonding.

    Children who are ready to communicate effectively present themselves confidently in both manner and speech. They are emboldened to make responsible decisions that will keep them on track to reaching their goals, making friends along the way.

  • Stop to Think

    The road to healthy living begins with children setting reachable goals, but to stay true to that road children must learn to make responsible decisions.  Children face the challenges of external pressures every day, whether they are from community, peers, or media. Dr. Jim Taylor in Psychology Today writes that "children who are poor decision makers are ready prey to the inevitable bad decisions when they listen to popular culture." Therefore, it is essential for children to learn at an early age what it takes to make decisions that will keep them focused on their goals.

    The primary method children can use to make responsible decisions is to stop to give themselves time to think through the decision before they act.  Dr. Taylor states that children lack the experience of maturity so they "tend to make decisions that are impulsive and focused on immediate gratification." Because time is ultimately the only solution for gaining experience, we need to equip children with skills they can use until they gain that experience. Young children may benefit from such tangible practices as counting to ten or taking a few deep breaths before they speak or act.

    Developing decision making in children must be age appropriate.  It is crucial that we recognize the capacity for decision making that grows with age. Younger children can tackle simpler decisions whereas adolescents can begin to incorporate much longer term thinking, with multiple potential outcomes and consequences, into their calculus.  Thus, as we facilitate decision making, we should be mindful of this incremental process.

    Despite knowing to take time to think before they act, children often face peer pressure and peer influence that can challenge their decision making.  Dr. Taylor says that children under pressure "may know that doing something is stupid, but they may feel peer pressure to do it anyway." Children who develop a strong moral compass and conviction to attain their goals are more likely to make responsible decisions in the face of peer pressure. They will more carefully weigh the negative consequences of making poor decisions versus the benefits of making good decisions and how those consequences, good or bad, will affect their ability to reach their goals in the short and long run.

    Teaching responsible decision-making skills is easy, but learning these skills requires time and practice to incorporate them into everyday life.  A supportive learning environment that allows children to practice these skills and learn from mistakes can foster a confidence to take on more challenging decisions. This confidence in turn enables children to take on healthy risks and strive to reach more challenging goals.

    Children who learn from an early age to approach decisions in a thoughtful manner are better equipped to resist the influence of popular culture.  They are more likely to live confidently in each moment, because making responsible decisions brings assurance and peace of mind. Children who stop to think about their decisions are one step closer to reaching their goals.