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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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