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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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. But the learning comes from experience.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️
Speaking to the courage that is coming to life inside them helps to bring it close enough for them to touch, and to imagine, and to step into, even if doesn’t feel real for them yet. It will become them soon enough but until then, we can help them see what we see - a brave, strong, flight-ready child who just might not realise it yet. ‘I know how brave you are.’ ‘I love that you make hard decisions sometimes, even when it would be easier to do the other thing.’ ‘You might not feel brave, but I know what it means to you to be doing this. Trust me – you are one of the bravest people I know.’
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 #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #parentingtip #childdevelopment #braindevelopment #mindfulparenting #parentingtips #parentingadvice
So often, our children will look to us for signs of whether they are brave enough, strong enough, good enough. Let your belief in them be so big, that it spills out of you and over to them and forms the path between them and their mountain. And then, let them know that the outcome doesn't matter. What matters is that they believe in themselves enough to try. 

Their belief in themselves might take time to grow, and that's okay. In the meantime, let them know you believe in them enough for both of you. Try, ‘I know this feels big and I know you can do it. What is one small step you can take? I’m right here with you.’♥️
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Anxiety will tell our kiddos a deficiency story. It will focus them on what they can't do and turn them away from what they can. We know they are braver, stronger, and more powerful than they could ever think they are. We know that for certain because we’ve seen it before. We’ve seen them so held by anxiety, and we’ve seen them move through - not every time but enough times to know that they can. Even when those steps through are small and awkward and uncertain, they are brave. Because that’s how courage works. It’s fragile and strong, uncertain and powerful. We know that that about courage and we know that about them. 

Our job as their important adults is to give them the experiences that will help them know it too. This doesn't have to happen in big leaps. Little steps are enough, as long as they are forward. 

When their anxiety has them focused on what they can't do, focus them on what they can. By doing this, we are aligning with their capacity for brave, and bringing it into the light. 

Anxiety will have them believing that there are only two options - all or nothing; to do or not to do. So let's introduce a third. Let's invite them into the grey. This is where brave, bold beautiful things are built, one tiny step at a time. So what does this look like? It looks like one tiny step at a time. The steps can be so small at first - it doesn't matter how big they are, as long as they are forward. 
If they can't stay for the whole of camp, how much can they stay for?
If they can't do the whole swimming lesson on their own, how much can they do?
If they can't sleep all night in their own bed, how long can they sleep there for?
If they can't do the exam on their own, what can they do?
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When we do this, we align with their brave, and gently help it rise, little bit, by little bit. We give them the experiences they need to know that even when they feel anxious, they can do brave, and even when they feel fragile they are powerful.

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