Those of you who have followed this blog for some time and have read my back posts on healthy sexuality, know that I am one for just layering in conversations about things over time. For example, I feel fortunate that over the years I have been involved in breastfeeding counseling and have always worked with families and new babies. Because of this, we have had many conversations around this very practical life experience, seen up close and personal and discussed what new babies and new parents need. Now that our oldest daughter is a teenager, it has been easy to layer in candid conversations about healthy sexuality as we go. And, I think in order to talk about healthy sexuality, we need to talk about ourselves, how we perceive ourselves, and about addiction and the use of alcohol and drugs.
The conversations doesn’t mean nothing will ever happen. There are absolutely no guarantees in raising children into adulthood; all you can do is be open and warm and provide information and share experiences. People often act as if homeschooling is protective; I don’t view homeschooling that way. Homeschoolers are open to the same sorts of things that go on everywhere. Homeschoolers live life just like everyone else.
If you have experienced alcohol or drug addiction, or grew up with that, of course you will want to think ahead regarding how much you want to share and at what age you want your children to be to share it…But it is great to start thinking about that when your children are small (and on the flip side, it is never too late to have the conversation). You may save your child’s life and your child’s family. Addictions break families.
Addiction issues run in my family and I have been very upfront in layering in conversations over the years about the results of addiction to alcohol and drugs. You can read a little about the role of genetics in addiction here. I want my older children to know the real risks of alcohol and drug addiction just as they should know about the other medical and mental health issues that people in our family have experienced. I view alcohol and drug addiction as a medical problem, not something to be hid and not talked about.
Something that has also really prompted my conversation with my older children as well is the information to be found in the book, “A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults” by Jensen, MD. One thing the author points out is that “teenagers get addicted to every substance faster than adults, and once addicted have much greater difficulty ridding themselves of the habit – and not just in their teen years but throughout the rest of their lives.” (page 117). In other words, because teenaged brains are neuroanatomically primed for learning and are more “plastic”, they are also more prone to addictions than a mature adult.
I am sure I have mentioned this book before on my blog because I love it, so please do look it up. Here are a few interesting comments from that book regarding tobacco and alcohol:
- Sleep deprivation in teens can lead to increased cigarette use.
- Cigarette smoking can “cause a variety of cognitive and behavioral problems, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and memory loss, and it has been associated with lower IQ in smoking teenagers.” (page 115).
- A single cigarette has more than four thousand chemicals and substances in it.
- Ninety percent of smokers begin before the age of eighteen.
- The more teens smoke, the more the pre-frontal cortex of the brain is affected, and poor decision-making occurs. Some studies show that after just a few cigarettes, the adolescent brain begins to create new nicotine receptors – essentially remodeling itself so it is harder to stop smoking.
- When teens drink alcohol, they tend to drink four or five drinks in one session. The definition of binge drinking is considered when one consumes more than four or five drinks in a two hour period. Studies show that binge drinking typically begins around the age of thirteen and then peaks between ages eighteen to twenty-two.
- The teenaged brain has less GABA receptors than the adult brain and handles some of the sedative aspects of drinking better than adults – which unfortunately means greater physiological tolerance of drinking which can result in an incentive to drink more. Because drinking is social, and because studies have shown that teens frequently underestimate the amount of alcohol those around them are drinking, the combination can be deadly.
- There are also terrible long-term consequences to alcohol in the teenaged brain, including attention deficit, depression, memory problems, and reduction in goal-oriented behavior. The damage is actually worse for girls’ brains than boys’. Alcohol abuse shrinks the size of the hippocampus and also blocks the glutamate receptors the brain needs to build new synapses. The hippocampus is where short-term memories are turned into long-term memories. Many teens and young adults experience blackouts when they drink; young women may be at greater risk for memory impairment from alcohol. Researchers are not totally sure why this may be yet.
- Children and adolescents who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence later in life than those who begin drinking at the legal drinking age of twenty –one (United States).
I don’t really have the room here to go into the neuroanatomic changes caused by marijuana, Ecstasy, cocaine and other drugs on the adolescent brain, but I just leave this post with a reminder of the general signs of drug abuse: withdrawal, dramatic changes in appetite or sleeping habits, excess irritability, lack of personal hygiene, speech that is too rapid or too slow, bloodshot eyes, consistent cough, irregularities in the eye pupils or eye movements, change in group of friends.
Keep watchful, and please talk to your children. Conversations about these topics should be natural, normal,warm, open, and layered in over time with your children. Always keep in mind that the biology of the brain of a teenager makes addiction much more difficult than even in adults. These conversations – sexuality, addiction, dealing with stress, challenges such as depression and anxiety or other difficult behaviors that many times actually begin in adolescence – deserve loving, kind parental conversations, action, boundaries, connections in the community, assistance. These topics are really just part of being human and adolescents deserve our time and attention to be there for these challenges. There are many things we can shy away from as parents, or areas where we don’t feel we excel, but these topics deserve our attempt.