Addiction – The Fascinating Information Every Adolescent Needs to Know

Adolescence is the time to explore the world and your place in it – but you’ve gotta take your smarts with you! Understand how addiction happens, why everyone is vulnerable, and how to avoid it happening to you. (And no – this isn’t a preachy, boring lecture. Promise.)

The Take-Aways

  • During adolescence, your brain is changing to give you the brain power you need to learn, experience, explore, and to set you up for the transition from childhood to adulthood.
  • During this time, your brain is really vulnerable to changing according to the experiences you expose it to – for better or worse.
  • Think of this like a bridge that is half-built. If that traffic starts to cross it before it’s finished, the bridge will be devastated. When that bridge is built, it will be more able to handle the pressure from heavy traffic in all sorts of conditions. During adolescence, your brain is like a partially built bridge. It’s brilliant, and it’s hungry, and it’s looking to grow and thrive. It’s a really exciting time for you. But you need to be careful with the experiences you expose it to.
  • One of the things your brain is really vulnerable to is addiction, and part of this is because of a chemical in your brain called dopamine. Dopamine is released when we get something we want. This is to actually make us keep doing the things that are good for us. So when we eat, fall in love, exercise, try something new or unfamiliar, succeed at a challenge – these are experiences that release dopamine. When dopamine is released in the brain, it feels really good – good enough for the brain to chase more of whatever it was that triggered the release.
  • During adolescence the levels of dopamine in your brain are actually lower than they are in adults – but – when it’s released, as in when you get something you want, that dopamine is released at a higher rate than it would be in an adult. So you can see how this is going to work. Lower dopamine can cause you to feel flatter or more indifferent, but when you get something you want, it feels so good.
  • Whether or not something is addictive depends on the speed of the release of dopamine, the consistency it’s released in response to that experience, and the amount released. More synthetic experiences, such as illicit drugs, hit all three.
  • Because your brain is so open to changing according to the experiences you expose it to, you’re more vulnerable to addiction during adolescence than at any other time.
  • There’s something else that increases the risk of addiction during adolescence, and it’s the tendency for the adolescent brain to pay more attention to the positives of a situation, than the negatives. This is to support you in being brave enough to try new things, learn new skills, and experiment with your growing independence, but it can also bring you unstuck.
  • Nobody ever starts doing things that are addictive in a bad way, thinking that it will only happen once, and thinking they will never get addicted. It just happens along the way, and it happens before you know it – and you are particularly vulnerable during adolescence because your brain is so hungry for the feel-good rush that comes from these things.
  • The part of your brain that is able to plan and consider consequences doesn’t switch on as automatically as it would at other stages of your life. Again, this isn’t a bad thing – it happens this way to encourage you to do brave things, and to try new things. What this means is that to make strong, healthy decisions it will help to step back and take a moment to think about the consequences. This in itself will activate the part of your brain that is more able to see around corners and consider consequences.
  • The risk in not doing this if you’re confronted with a risky decision, is that your brain will love the dopamine hit so much, it will just keep chasing it.
  • Nobody wants to stop you from doing brave things and trying new, challenging things, but it’s really important that you have your wits about you, and that you’re smart about the decisions you make. It’s an exciting time for you, but you need to be really smart about the decisions you make.

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‘Brave’ doesn’t always feel like certain, or strong, or ready. In fact, it rarely does. That what makes it brave.♥️
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We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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