Larchmont/Mamaroneck Parents Learn about the Teen Brain and Alcohol
Larchmont/Mamaroneck Parents Learn about the Teen Brain and Alcohol.
On Tuesday evening, April 17th, parenting and prevention expert Mike Nerney addressed an audience of 160 parents from Larchmont and Mamaroneck at the Hommocks Auditorium. His topic was “Why Teens Shouldn’t Drink, and How Parents Can Make a Difference.” He is a very engaging and humorous speaker—the kind who can do a spot-on imitation of an evasive teen or an overbearing parent. But his specialty is the education he gives parents about the inner workings and complexity and vulnerability of the teenage brain.
According to Nerney, the human brain is not fully developed until the ages of 21 to 25. He said that if medical experts had their way, the drinking age would be 24, but the alcohol lobby would never allow it. While the adult brain is generally calmed by alcohol, the teen brain is stimulated and energized by it. Teen brains are so full of grey matter that they have a harder time assessing situations and making good decisions than adult brains with refined white matter and executive functioning. In addition, the teen brain craves the neurotransmitters associated with risk, which explains why teens are attracted to alcohol and risky behaviors.
When asked if alcohol is bad for the teenage brain, Nerney’s answer was a resounding “Yes.” He quoted one study which showed that a year of heavy drinking could damage 10% of a teen’s cerebral cortex and 10% of his hypothalamus, which is where emotional intelligence is centered. When Nerney met earlier in the day with 10th grade MHS students during health class, he asked them if they would trade such a significant part of their brain potential for the privilege of getting drunk with friends. Nerney’s main message to parents and students alike is that teens should delay the use of alcohol as long as possible to allow their brains to develop to maturity.
Nerney admitted to the crowd that this is the time of year that always makes him the most nervous as a prevention expert because it is end-of-school party season. He said that between 700 and 780 high school kids in the U.S. die every year between mid-April and mid-June in alcohol-related fatalities. He encouraged parents to take this data seriously, especially when making decisions about spring break trips and after prom parties. He not only warned of driving accidents and alcohol poisoning; he said that sexual assault is a serious risk when teens and alcohol mix. Teens use alcohol because it makes them less inhibited; but the dark side of this is that alcohol makes teens twice as likely to get into fights, twice as likely to be involved in date rape, and twice as likely to use technology in cruel ways.
Nerney’s tone was not alarmist or moralistic, but reasonable and realistic. And he encouraged parents to approach their kids the same way. Educate them about the dangers, share your concerns, tell them about the science. Whatever you do, don’t duck the issue. When one parent in the crowd suggested that teens don’t listen to parents, Nerney reassured the room that teens do listen to parents much more than we realize. They won’t thank you politely for your wisdom, but they will internalize your values for use when you’re not around.
To help parents communicate with teens, Nerney had a few pearls to share. Eat meals together 5 times a week, and make sure these meals aren’t “corrective or remedial” in nature. They should be positive experiences that encourage comfort and bonding. (Don’t use dinner to discuss the disappointing progress report.) When a teen comes home and seems emotional, give her an hour alone to regroup before you start asking a million questions. Always praise publicly, correct privately. Have difficult conversations in a dark car or doing a side-by-side task; avoid direct eye contact, as this produces anxiety in teens and will cause them to shut down. Offer your help and concern, then stop talking so that your teen will actually have time to think and respond. (Those “awkward silences” can make all the difference in allowing your kid to open up, so let them happen.)
With regard to alcohol-specific protocols, Nerney echoed the theme of the RADAR campaign, “Be a Parent, Not a Friend.” He suggested letting kids know you expect them not to drink, having curfews to limit the hours of risk, and following through on sensible consequences if rules are broken. He also recommended that parents and teens establish a code together, in case a teen wants to extricate herself from a bad situation. For example, if your teen calls and says, “Mom, is Uncle Bryan coming tonight?” you know she wants you to go and pick her up. Nerney said teens use these codes more than you’d expect; but even if your teen never uses the code, she knows you are concerned for her welfare and always have her back.
Finally, Nerney suggested that parents help teens find healthy activities and outlets that satisfy their teenage need for risk and socialization. Playing sports, acting on stage, rock climbing, scuba diving, community service projects…anything is better than gathering for the sake of drinking. Ultimately, the better you understand and respect their needs, the easier it is to be an effective, confident parent to teenagers.
To see Mike Nerney’s talk for yourself, check the LMC-TV schedule.