Brains At Risk

Looking back, I was incredibly fortunate to have been trained as a health educator when that undergraduate degree track was taking hold in our culture. Coming off of the indulgences of the 60’s, some good and many not so good, our world was poised to take a closer look at how lives could be lived with a greater focus on exercise, nutrition, and avoidance of substances that carried the risk of upsetting the delicate homeostatic balance of the human organism. Admittedly, I was captured by the world of health science education. Many of the concepts and skills I learned shape the approaches I take as an educator and administrator.

What once seemed as a totally appropriate premise (a statement assumed to be true and used to draw conclusions) to use with adolescent boys to frame a course of study in health education, now seems to be somewhat problematic based on what we know about the adolescent brain. Consider the premise:

                  You are entering a developmental period when you are beginning to have more control over your life than anyone or anything else. By the habits you develop and the decisions you make, you can greatly influence the quality of your life and quite possibly, affect how long you live.

Let me start with what remains true about the above premise. Adolescence is a time where control of many life situations is either handed over or sought after by our middle school boys. They do need to develop good habits; one of the reasons our Mastery Behaviors and Habits Rubric is so important. Good decision-making is essential for our boys in so many different areas of life. Consequences for both good and bad choices are the foundation for developing resilience and character. Quality of life is also impacted by our habits and decisions. Ask any long-term smoker who now speaks with the use of an artificial larynx. “You” remains the most important word in the premise because each of us must own the decisions and habits that affect our lives in the short and long-term.

beerUnfortunately, the ability to establish control, develop healthy habits, and exercise sound decision-making is more than the simple “Just Say No” mantra of the 80’s. Brain research has revealed interesting characteristics of the adolescent brain that work against not only saying no, but also clouding the clarity necessary to make healthy real-time decisions. The frontal cortex, or seat of rational and thoughtful decision-making, is the last lobe of the brain to fully develop. In males, this may not happen until the mid-twenties. For some of us, it may have taken much longer. Buried deep within the brain are centers of emotion, risk, and reward. In adolescents, these are far more activated and seemingly alive than the decision-making frontal section. So it is no surprise that boys between the ages of 12 and 25 will choose risk, instant gratification or reward, or emotional outbursts over a decision that would make more sense from a parental or adult perspective. Brain researchers have “likened the adolescent brain to a car with a fully functioning gas pedal (the reward system) but weak brakes (the pre-frontal cortex).” They do have more control than they did as pre-adolescents, but they are still years away from a fully developed, fully functioning brain. Compounding the situation is the damage that can be done to the brain’s eventual development because of poor choices regarding substance abuse. What is so difficult for them with regard to exercising control becomes the enemy who can cheat them of ever realizing their maximum brain potential. So why if they know all of this (and they do), would any adolescent make such potentially damaging choices? Before I move ahead, keep in mind that you were in that age group not too long ago. For me a much longer period of time has passed, but I still have vivid memories of those “interesting” years.

The reasons for adolescents using alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes, and pain killers are numerous. Aside from the fact that their brain wiring creates the desire to take risks and seek new experiences, they are struggling to deal with the problems of growing up, the real or perceived need to perform better at school, the need to create their own identity, or to avoid being different from what is their understanding of the “norm.” When their family environments create stresses because of emotional or physical abuse or watching parents abuse alcohol and /or drugs on one day and then sending a conflicting verbal message his way the following day, boys often seek the refuge of a substance that they have heard will help them escape, take the edge off, or provide some momentary relief. Getting “high” is nothing more than the brain’s reward circuits being inundated with stimuli that are much more powerful than the rewards that come with scoring the winning goal in soccer or mastering the quadratic formula. These not-so-natural rewards feel good at the time but can start a vicious cycle that can lead to addiction.

The best predictor for a life of non-addiction is to delay the use of any substances that interfere with the brain’s development. Boys who get involved with alcohol and other drugs before the age of 15 are significantly more at risk to develop a substance abuse disorder later in life. For example, “15 percent of boys who start drinking by age 14 eventually develop alcohol abuse or dependence as compared to just 2 percent of those who wait until they are twenty-one or older.” The chronic use of marijuana in adolescence can lead to a loss of IQ that is unrecoverable even if the adolescent stops using in adulthood. So, what can we do to help our boys move safely through adolescence and avoid the potentially devastating effects of substance abuse? I’ll list what Michelle Kriebel, our drug and alcohol consultant who works with our 8th grade, shared in her meeting with parents.

  • You must have the courage to say “no” to requests that put your sons and daughters in potentially dangerous situations. You have to be their pre-frontal cortex in cases where their safety is paramount.
  • You have to draw a line in the sand with regard to behaviors that will lead to harmful consequences. Don’t keep moving the line!
  • Don’t leave your boys alone, even in your house, thinking that quiet means all is well. This is particularly true if there is no lock on your liquor cabinet and it is located where you son is spending time with his friends.
  • Know the parents of the boys who are in your son’s inner circle. All of you need to work together.
  • Help you son find a passion that requires considerable focus and effort on his part. This passion should provide natural brain rewards.
  • Safe proof your house. There should be no easy access to substances your sons can potentially abuse – this includes prescription drugs.
  • Model the behaviors you want your sons to develop.
  • Don’t force the conversations, but be ready to talk when they initiate.

Feedback from our 8th grade boys clearly indicates that they appreciate all their parents do for them. They are fully aware of the great sacrifices that have been made so they can attend St. Paul’s and participate in activities that take them all over the Baltimore area. But, as busy as they are, they are also appreciative of the time that is spent around the dinner table or the time together just having family fun. As a friend of mine once said with regard to helping boys get through the difficult years of adolescence, “We have to be the many voices that convey the same message over and over again. The message is that we care and we will do whatever is necessary to keep you safe.”


Drug and Alcohol Facts for Teens

National Institute on Drug Abuse

Tools For Talking With Teens About Drugs

Randy Woods

Randy Woods

Mr. Woods is the Middle School Director and has been at St. Paul's in various capacities since 1984. He can be reached at

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