The article, "Build Protection Against Risky Behavior," written by Charles E. Mendez III, appears in the Spring Issue of SEEN Magazine. Mendez writes, "Adolescents equipped with higher social emotional competencies are more likely to value themselves and their opportunities. It is essential, then, for us to teach adolescents from an early age to recognize and apply their capacity to set and fulfill reachable goals. The willingness to stake a claim in one’s own future provides something to lose, something to protect." Read the full article here.
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Too Good Today
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a study that showed adolescent e-cigarette use tripled between 2013 and 2014. This new trend means we need to look not just at the negative health effects of smoking but at the overall negative health effects of nicotine on the developing teenage brain.
As with alcohol and other substances, nicotine has an especially harmful effect on the developing teenage brain. Research has shown that nicotine directly impacts monoamine neurotransmitters and the limbic system, parts of the brain necessary for emotion regulation, behavior, and memory. Neural connections are still being determined in adolescence, so the development of these areas could be compromised by the use of nicotine products.
Monoamine transmitters are made up of transmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, all of which are integral to mood. In the journal article, “The Dynamic Effects of Nicotine on the Developing Brain,” Dwyer and McQuown write “findings suggest that adolescent nicotine exposure may induce maladaptive learning in emotional contexts, which may lead to life-long mood disorders.” An imbalance of any of the monoamine transmitters can result in not only mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder, but even schizophrenia.
Dwyer and McQuown also report “nicotine may play a causal role in the persistence of impulsivity during and beyond adolescence.” Adolescence already marks a stage fraught with impulsivity, and using nicotine products just reinforces that circuitry in the brain. And these neural pathways created in adolescence are carried into adulthood.
Furthermore, studies show that teens are more sensitive than adults to nicotine’s addictive properties, because the reward center of their brain develops at a quicker rate than the prefrontal cortex. In other words, teens are more likely to take a risk and seek reward, which means they are also more susceptible to negative peer influence.
It is essential that we correct any misperceptions of harm teens have about e-cigarettes by educating them as to the negative health consequences of nicotine and by countering e-cigarette manufacturers’ purposeful targeting of youth. Candy flavored nicotine products are no less harmful than cigarettes, contrary to what teens may think. Well informed teens are better equipped to make responsible decisions, resist negative peer influence, and stay free from nicotine addiction in all of its forms.
The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley recently highlighted the essential connection between social emotional learning and mindfulness. The center states that by helping children “become aware of and then embody the connection between their emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations, students are better able to regulate their emotions, which then impacts things such as their behavior, stress levels, relationships, and ability to focus.” Practicing social emotional skills in tangible ways helps children become more aware of themselves and others.
Children who take time to think before acting are more likely to make responsible decisions and manage their emotions. Christopher Willard, Tufts psychologist and author of Child’s Mind: Mindfulness Practices to Help Our Children Be More Focused, Calm and Relaxed, names several ways in which children may practice mindfulness. Taking deep breaths is one way for children to pause and focus. Willard states that “exercises such as breathing consciously or taking a minute or two to really listen can help a child regulate such feelings as anger and anxiety.”
Children can further regulate emotions by learning to identify their own body language as well as the body language of others. A racing heart can be the effect of nervousness or excitement, and a frown can be a sign of sadness or frustration. These physical signs can be cues for children to learn the moments when they may need to pause and relax. Children who are able to recognize these cues in themselves and others are also able to mitigate potential conflict.
Willard further emphasizes the meaningful results when children take a few moments to listen to and observe their surroundings. He encourages another tangible practice in which children “listen carefully for about a minute and then name five sounds he heard while being quiet.” In this way, children practice how to pause, reflect, and gain awareness of self and others.
The Greater Good Science Center asserts that such “mindfulness practices connect students’ inner and outer experiences and help them see the congruence between the two.” Children who are able to stop to think, to pause and reflect, are better able to live with assurance in the moment and build happy and peaceful futures.
Prescription opioid abuse has risen significantly over the past decade, leading the federal government and many state governments to instate more stringent laws to reduce access to these drugs. These efforts have been successful in both reducing illicit availability and driving up costs. As a result, addicted users turn to heroin, which is often cheaper and easier to obtain. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, heroin use among young adults aged 18-25 has almost doubled in a recent ten year period. Both heroin and prescription opioids bind to opioid receptors in the brain, producing an effect that diminishes perceptions of pain. These drugs also engage with the area of the brain that involves reward, which could be one cause for addiction.
The biological transition from opioids to heroin is not much of a leap, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration “has found more heroin laced with fentanyl, which is typically used to treat severe pain in people with chronic illness.” Heroin suppliers use this additive because it increases the heroin’s potency in an effort to keep street prices down and consumption up. However, heroin laced with fentanyl is that much more lethal.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the DEA administrator reports that drug “incidents and overdoses related to fentanyl are occurring at an alarming rate throughout the United States and represent a significant threat to public health and safety.” Indeed, it poses a significant risk to law enforcement officials who come into contact with it, because it can be unintentionally inhaled or absorbed through the skin during drug busts.
Fentanyl is one of many prescription opioids that are abused, maybe particularly so because it can be prescribed in the form of a patch. Users cut up the patches and place them under the tongue for a quicker and more intense effect.
With the rise in prescription opioid abuse and heroin use, we are reminded of the crucial need to prevent the misuse of prescription medications. Drug manufacturers are working to develop analgesics that are not opioids and ultimately less likely to be abused. Additionally, as prevention educators, we can educate children as to the safe use of prescription medications and correct children’s misperceptions of harm surrounding inappropriate use of prescription medications. Children who learn from an early age to take a responsible approach toward the safe use and handling of prescription medications are less likely to abuse them, and so they are less likely to develop a dependence on opioids that could ultimately lead to a possible heroin addiction. Drug awareness education coupled with the tools children need to make responsible decisions and resist negative peer influence, all equip children with the resiliency they need to stay true to a drug-free life.
Conventional wisdom suggests isolation rises out of addiction, but studies have shown that in fact addiction may be a result of social isolation. Of course, there is a vicious cycle that then develops; isolation breeds addiction which breeds further isolation.
Professor of Psychology, Bruce Alexander, conducted an experiment in the 1970s that has become known as the Rat Park experiment. Previous experiments revealed rats in isolation chose cocaine-laced water over plain water, so much so their addictions to the substance eventually lead to overdose and death. But Alexander wanted to test his theory which suggested rats would be less likely to become addicted to drugs in a social environment, so he created an engaging and social habitat. His rats were offered both plain and cocaine-laced bottles of water. Surprisingly, the inhabitants of Rat Park shunned the cocaine-laced water. These social and happy rats did not feel the draw of the drug their isolated counterparts felt.
Addiction psychologists assert that human beings have a deep desire to bond, and if they can’t connect with other people, they may turn to something to fill that void. The trouble is the escape is only a temporary surrogate for the lack of human connection. Using alcohol or other drugs to escape or turning to sugar for comfort or other forms of distraction betrays an addictive yearning to connect. And so begins the journey to addiction, further isolating the person from the meaningful human bond they fundamentally need and miss.
So what does this all mean for prevention? If isolation is likely to spawn addiction and a social environment fosters resilience, then it is essential that children learn how to develop and maintain healthy relationships from an early age. Fundamental social emotional skills equip children with the ability to bond with positive peers in a meaningful way. Effective communication and emotion management are key players on the road to building relationships. With these social emotional competencies in place, children can successfully maintain their forged connections. And a social environment clearly acts as a preventive measure against risky behaviors.
Let these studies shine a light on the necessity for us to give children the tools to build strong foundations. Children who connect with others in meaningful ways are happier, healthier, and ultimately more resilient. They in turn stay true to social lives free of drugs and violence.
Executive function development is essential for success in college and career. These executive function skills consist of working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control—all necessary components for higher education and the workplace. The most effective time for development of these skills is in early childhood, but they may be fostered well into the teen years.
According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, early childhood experiences “affect the development of brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health.” In the early years, there is a process of neural connection proliferation that is necessary for the development of three areas of the brain: the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex. These three areas are responsible for emotional behavior and regulation, short term memory, and self-control.
Following the process of proliferation, the brain prunes neural pathways. In other words, learned behaviors are defined. It is crucial, then, that early childhood experiences bolster executive function. Building executive function requires a three-pronged approach. This may be achieved through implementing a curriculum that ensures children gain access to education and creative activities delivered by an adult role-model who displays high executive function.
Adult role-modeling plays a large role in learned behaviors. The Center on the Developing Child states that “even under stressful conditions, supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response.” Care-givers and teachers may not have control over a child’s family environment, but they can play their part in the healthy development of children’s executive function by displaying their own executive function skills.
Activities that encourage creative play are another way in which children learn executive function skills. Card games, storytelling, and songs that repeat and add on exercise working memory; movement challenges, such as yoga or freeze dance, practice self-control; children can make their own play props or engage in matching card games to foster cognitive flexibility.
The Center on the Developing Child says helping provide “the support that children need to build these skills at home, in early care and education programs, and in other settings they experience regularly is one of society’s most important responsibilities.” It is never too soon to start helping children develop the executive function foundation they need to prepare for success in life.
Interactive activities are an integral part of social emotional learning. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) states that “learning is an intrinsically social and interactive process: it takes place in collaboration with one’s teachers, in the company of one’s peers, and with the support of one’s family.” Active and participatory lessons encourage children to learn social emotional skills firsthand. For the most effective social emotional skill development, it helps if activities are not limited to school but are also extended into family and community.
Children who are socially and emotionally competent are skilled in five core areas: self-awareness, responsible decision-making, emotion management, social awareness, and healthy relationship building. By developing these skills through engaging activities, children are better equipped to stay on track to their goals, face potential challenges, and resist negative peer influence to engage in risky behaviors.
What types of activities can be incorporated into lessons to develop social emotional skills? Cooperative learning designs that promote bonding—such as games, role-plays, and skits—are a great way to reinforce what students have learned. Through hands-on experience, students can practice these essential skills. Interactive games promote teamwork, giving students the opportunity to work on group decision-making, develop relationship skills, and resolve conflict peacefully. Real life scenarios enacted through role-plays and skits give students the opportunity to apply the skills they have learned, deepening their understanding of self and others.
Interactive social and emotional learning helps children internalize the skills they will carry with them through life; they will in turn develop strong character that will give them the resiliency they need to live happy and healthy lives.
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.
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.
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.