By Kathe Malouf
Special to the Sun
Addiction and the teenage brain was the focus of a seminar held in Lake Isabella last week where parents, students, school administrators and educators gathered to learn why teens are vulnerable to addiction and the science behind that behavior.
The free event was a collaboration between local Clinical Therapist, Heather Berry, LCSW, and staff from the Kern County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services. Numerous organizations were on hand to offer information about substance abuse and recovery programs that are available in the Kern River Valley.
“We have a bit of a drug and alcohol problem here in the Kern Valley, and it has been getting worse, dramatically worse,” Berry said. “And if we are going to make a difference, we have to band together. And it starts with our kids.”
Berry noted that research indicates that the first point of contact that young children have with substance abuse can be as early as the 6th grade, with the primary substance being alcohol. But she also noted that there are numerous resources available in the Kern Valley for help. “We have a meeting every day of the week that is free to anybody who wants to reach out for recovery.”
Behavioral Health and Recovery Services Program Specialist Mary Rosendo presented an overview of why the teen brain is vulnerable to addiction, as well as how drugs and alcohol affect teenagers. She discussed the various parts of the brain and how each one is used to make the many decisions and functions of our daily activities.
Research shows that as a child matures, his or her brain continues to develop and the brain’s final adult “wiring” may not be complete until the person is well into their twenties. As it develops, the brain undergoes dramatic changes during adolescence. Rosendo noted that the brain typically matures around the age of 25 years old.
Teens are known to be impulsive and natural risk takers, but research explains that it all comes down to the development of the brain – specifically the frontal lobe of the brain. The frontal lobe is the last part of the brain to mature and is the region responsible for making sound decisions, for controlling impulses and for risk-taking. With this area still not fully developed, teens are susceptible to making bad choices when it comes to substance abuse and for addiction.
“Teens think differently than adults, they rely on emotion,” Rosendo said, adding that because their brains have not fully matured, teens do not have the coping skills to be able to make quick or rational decisions.
“It is as if the teen’s brain has a fully functional car accelerator but the brakes have not been installed yet,” Rosendo said.
Being able to cope with daily demands could be as easy as getting enough sleep, Rosendo said, adding that teens need at least nine hours of sleep per night. When there is an overload of the use of laptops, cell phones and video games, that constant stimulation of electronics makes it difficult for the brain to shut down and allow sleep.
Rosendo said that the brain is a communication center consisting of billions of neurons that pass messages back and forth throughout the body. Drugs and chemicals affect the brain by tapping into it communication system and interfering with the way neurons send, receive and process information.
Research shows that teens who abuse substances become addicted more quickly and more heavily than adults do, and drugs and alcohol have more permanent and lasting effects on the teenage brain. The effects of alcohol on the teen brain is often worse, Rosendo said, because teens don’t realize how much they are drinking.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2016, about 7.3 million underage people reported current alcohol use. Additionally, about 2 million adolescents between the ages of 12 to 17 reported that they were current users of illicit drugs.
After presenting the what and why of teenage addiction, Rosendo discussed what works in preventing teens from using drugs. She listed several factors, including: having a supportive family, having a hobby or interest, participation in sporting activities and exercise and being connected or involved with school.
Teens and parents need to be educated, Rosendo stressed, because they are capable of making better choices, and with the right information, they are more likely to make the right decision about substance abuse.
Parents were presented with suggestions for successful navigation of the teen years, simple tips such as: talking to teens about the dangers and negative consequences of drugs and alcohol, promoting activities that capitalize on the teen’s strengths, and monitoring the activities of their teenager.
Emma De La Rosa, also with Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services addressed the audience about establishing a local Community Based Environmental Risk Reduction (CBERR) which is comprised of environmental prevention strategies to reduce youth alcohol use by addressing the access and availability.
De La Rosa said it is a call to action to involve local agencies, organizations, parents, schools and anyone who is concerned about the youth of the valley to get involved with formation of a CBERR. She concluded that a town hall meeting will be scheduled at a later date to provide more information about establishing a CBERR in the area.