Health Matters: Helping Kids Have a Healthy Adolescence

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April 2019

With all the physical, social and emotional changes and challenges of adolescence these days, how can we help our children stay safe and healthy? Let’s face it, adolescence has never been easy, but given the constant intrusion electronic screens, the introduction of social media, and the ever-present availability of marijuana in Mendocino County, I think it’s more difficult now than ever before.

As a parent of five, I can attest that I do not have all the answers. However, as a medical provider who works with kids every day, I have some ideas on how to keep family relationships intact and teens safe. 

WHY TEENS ARE CRAZY: PUBERTY

Puberty is a period usually starting between ages 10 and 14 for girls and ages 12 and 16 for boys that kicks off adolescence, the transition from childhood to adulthood. During this time, hormones can make young people feel out of control. Physical changes can make their own bodies feel unfamiliar. And trying to navigate the social scene (in person and online) can feel overwhelming.

While all of this is happening, parental influence is exchanged for that of their peers. Basically, at a time when young people need solid, thoughtful advice, they stop listening to those who can give it—their parents and role models—and begin listening to friends who are usually just as confused and inexperienced as they are.

Since the brain’s judgment center (the prefrontal cortex) isn’t finished developing until we hit our mid-twenties, it’s no wonder that teen decision-making is so baffling; teens do not have the benefit of a fully functioning center of reason.

How can we help young adults mature gracefully? Reach their potential? Avoid dangerous risks?

Although there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer, helping teens understand how to cope with uncomfortable feelings without the use of marijuana or the distraction of electronic gadgets is a good start.

THE WRONG WAY TO COPE: MARIJUANA

When people feel sad, anxious, or uncomfortable (as they often do during adolescence), they look for ways to feel better. Unfortunately, one of the coping mechanisms teens frequently choose is marijuana. Marijuana releases dopamine that provides an immediate and gratifying sense of well-being, thereby short-circuiting a person’s desire to work hard.

Heavy marijuana use over extended periods can decrease motivation over that time. If people aren’t motivated to practice, they won’t gain the sense of accomplishment that comes from mastering a skill, whether it’s sports, music, academics or interpersonal relationships. When we put in the hours of repetition required to get good at something, we are rewarded with the payoff—having fun doing something we’re skilled at.

When I talk to my teenage patients, I ask them if they know people who spend most of their time on a couch doing nothing but smoking marijuana. Most of them do. I ask them, “Is that the future you want for yourself?” They don’t.

For some, marijuana can be a trigger for genetic predispositions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. If your family has a history of mental illness, let your teen know smoking marijuana may trigger these illnesses. The adult brain is not fully formed until at least 22 years of age and there appears to be some permanent changes in the brains of adolescents who smoke marijuana.

SCREEN TIME—SET LIMITS

The other issue I see causing big problems for adolescents is excessive screen time. Teens often feel pressured to remain plugged in all the time—keeping up with friends and popular culture. Electronic devices can also be tools for cyberbullying.

When your children get their first phone or social media account, I recommend setting boundaries early, including having passwords that parents know. This is not a privacy issue; it’s a safety issue. If you start early, teens may not like your access to their phone, but they’ll be used to it.

ADOLESCENTS NEED PARENTS, NOT JUST FRIENDS

It’s tough to find the line between being a friend and being a parent when keeping communication channels open. If you feel like your child needs extra support, possibly therapy or medication for depression or anxiety, do not hesitate to get in touch with your medical provider. We can help you figure out next steps.

 

Paul Hupp is a physician assistant at MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.