Adolescent brains still need guidance

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in Towson Times.

It’s the stage we fear as parents. Those cuddly babies toddle their way through elementary school straight into the ‘tween and teen years, and adolescence descends upon us.

For those of us who have traveled this path before with an older child, we’ve learned that “through” is the operative word when it comes to our children and puberty. Rarely do we set up permanent residence in the land of hormones and never-ending drama.

We get “through” it.

But the road is long, mixed with joy and a few bumps. So arm yourself with patience, humor and a good dose of science.

Yes, science.

Through the years, I’ve attended many health and wellness seminars for my children — some optional, some required. For two years, my presence at one meeting was my daughter’s permission to attend prom. Regardless of my motivation, I always left the seminars loaded with information and in awe of life beyond my backyard.

There’s no quicker trip to reality than having a former crack-addict-turned-counselor tell you what’s out there facing your kids. Or hearing a health and wellness expert present statistics for underage drinking — from a survey at your school. Or listening to an account of the consequences of serving alcohol to underage kids — in a nearby home. Or facing a panel of kids who shared more than you were ready to hear.

“I have [a] friend who sells marijuana,” one student commented.

Dumbfounded at the candor, I listened as the student explained his friend’s decision. Eighty-five dollars for a small baggie of marijuana was good money compared to other jobs. If caught, it’s unlikely the friend would go to jail at that age. Yes, the school may be upset, but often kids return if they’re kicked out.

The logic fried my brain, overloading my reality capacity at the moment as the honesty both alarmed and enlightened me.

The most powerful and helpful information came from a Duke University neuropharmacologist, Dr. Wilkie Wilson. His lecture revealed facts about brain development and risks youngsters face when they abuse alcohol or drugs.

“The frontal lobes of the brain are still developing until a child reaches their early 20s,” Dr. Wilson told a group of St. Paul’s parents some time ago. This area of the brain is what “makes us human,” we learned. It is responsible for “executive functions” such as processing complex information, reasoning and problem solving. It also manages impulse control and gives us the capacity to use good judgment in making decisions.

“Share your frontal lobes with your kids,” Dr. Wilson advised.

Our kids need strong guidance through these developmental years because the wiring of their brain is not complete. Their tools for good decisions are not finished.

That’s apparent, I must admit, as I reflect on the stark realities I’ve learned through the years.

We have to guide them until they can gain enough growth, maturity, experiences and, yes, brain development to make good choices on their own.

In his book, “Just Say Know: Talking with Kids about Drugs and Alcohol,” Wilson suggests there is evidence that alcohol abuse at a young age may change the way the brain develops. The impact on an individual’s brain function may be life-long, researchers are learning.

And with those thoughts, I suddenly gained a whole new perspective on underage drinking — rooted in science. Yes, I know it’s the law. I know there are severe consequences. But now I know what to say beyond, “No.”

It’s simply, “Wait.”

If you must try alcohol, wait as long as you possibly can to give your brain a chance to develop, to gain more experience in how to make good decisions. Avoid damaging this vital developing organ that must serve you the rest of your life.


You, too, along with that developing brain, will get through this stage.