Last week in this column I touched on the issue of marijuana, parents, and teens. I suggested that it is unwise for parents who light up to try and deceive their children about their own drug use.
I also intimated that still maturing adolescent brains respond differently to cannabis than the adult brain. Let’s explore this matter in more detail.
First, the biology. Neuroscientists have learned a great deal about the adolescent brain in recent years, indeed a lot that helps to explain why adolescents tend to respond to similar situations differently than adults. It turns out that the prefrontal cortex of an adolescent brain, that part of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act, is not as fully connected to the rest of the brain as it is in adults.
This explains why, on average, adolescents are more likely to act on impulse, misread social cues, and engage in risky behavior. It explains why they are less likely to think before acting or pause to consider the potential consequences of their actions. Which is not to say that there aren’t adults who act like adolescents! Remember, we’re talking “on average” here.
It also helps to explain why seemingly harmless “youthful experimentation” with drugs and alcohol can create significant and in some instances deadly consequences. Sometimes, all you parents out there, when “kids will be kids” and act that way they end up dead. Think alcohol, cocaine, heroin and “Molly,” for example.
Back to marijuana; Research strongly suggests that marijuana has negative cognitive effects on both adult and adolescent brains, but more so on adolescent brains and for longer periods of time. So, when attention span, ability to concentrate, and memory function are impaired, so is class performance.
I don’t want to sound like a scold here, and I know that most of the people who read this aren’t those who are most at risk. But it is important to know that regular use of marijuana in adolescents is likely to have negative effects on behavior and emotional wellbeing. So, what do you do if you are the parent of an adolescent and you or someone else, i.e., family, friends, neighbors, the school notice that Johnnie or Jill seems to be having more than just a bad day? Here, look for trouble with sleep, withdrawal, surliness, attention deficit, falling grades, sudden change in friends, or significant change in disposition. To a point, trust your intuition. If you believe there is something amiss, there likely is.
What to do? First, have an honest conversation with your child as in, “I’m worried about you because...” If that doesn’t work, reach out to people you trust. Talk with family, your pastor, your rabbi. Speak to the school counselor. Go to an Al-Anon meeting. Share your worries and observations. Get support from others. If you’re still worried because it’s going downhill with your child, seek professional assistance.
Perhaps the single most relevant reason why parents don’t move beyond warnings, lectures, groundings,or other punitive measures with an at-risk child is the sinking feeling that you have failed as a parent and that telling someone else about it will expose you for the fraud you believe yourself to be and make matters even more miserable.
My advice, simply put, is that your child’s present and future well being are at stake, so reach out and talk to people about your perception of the problem. Know that you are not alone. Know that a significant number of youth today experiment with drugs and alcohol and that what you do or don’t do about it will surly matter.
When youth have problems with drugs or alcohol those problems are frequently not self correcting. Instead, they get worse. Parental and/or community paralysis, ignorance, or indifference abets the problem.
So, if you’re a parent, engage. If you are a teacher, administrator, community leader, or just a concerned citizen, speak up. Ask about the resources to address this readily identifiable problem, and, yes, ask if the available resources are sufficient to meet the need.
Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.