Decisions Under the Influence

As I write this, the Summer is fully upon us.  I hear kids outside and birds chirping.  Activity abounds outside as we enjoy the sun and have fun together.  We all know that during the summer, thoughts turn to fun activities outside.  As school gets out, teens begin to feel the pull for more parties and more fun with others.  As school ends, plans are made for many social activities, many of which might include drinking or, at times, drugs.  While we do not all want those activities to involve drugs and alcohol, sometimes they do.  One reason we don’t like these substances to be involved is that we realize that many teens make poor decisions while under the influence of these substances.  Unfortunately, many of these decisions have lifelong consequences physically, emotionally and sometimes financially.  As adults in their lives we struggle with trying to help them have a good time, but not make decisions that will hurt them in the long or short run.  It is sometimes a delicate balancing act.

We have all seen teens, or even ourselves, make poor decisions while under the influence.  People might have sex together that really should not have, teens begin to lie to their parents about their behavior to cover for their own or their friends’ alcohol use, people flake out on commitments made to others because they hope to “get away” with using marijuana for just a little longer “because it helps me study.”  Unfortunately, more and more, teens decide to drive while under the influence, which we know has had a devastating effect on our community over the past several years.  No doubt about it, teens (and sometimes their parents) make poor decisions while under the influence.  These decisions can have life altering consequences that are not very easy to reverse.  I see the results of those decisions in my office on a daily basis.

However, regardless of their drug or alcohol use, teens regularly make difficult, and sometimes poor, decisions while under the influence of factors that adults do not have to contend with.  For example, teens are highly influenced (as we all remember ourselves) by their emotional experience when making decisions, and there is a biological basis for this situation.  Also, teens are not making decisions with the same brain that adults are using.  Their brain is physically different than an adult’s brain.  Also, the drugs or alcohol they consume hampers their already difficult decision-making process, which can lead to some poor decision making.

Most of these difficulties that teens (and their families) face are due to 3 important neurological factors of development during adolescence that gang up on the teen and their family and result in an adolescent brain already impaired in its ability to make important potentially life-altering decisions on its own, without some help from others.  The three factors are:

  1. Pruning – During adolescence, the teen brain is busy cutting down on unused neurons and making heavily used neurons more efficient.  Like trimming a tree, unused branches are cut off while heavily used branches are “myelinated” or streamlined.  This means that the brain is undergoing a massive reorganization during adolescence.
  2. Frontal lobe underdevelopment – because our brains tend to grow from the inside out, our frontal lobe (in the front) tends to develop last, during adolescence.  This is important because the frontal lobe is where all the important decisions need to be made.  This is where planning, perspective-taking (seeing someone else’s side) and questions of self-identity are managed.  The teen brain does not have the capacity to do this well, as this area is still growing, and also being “pruned.”
  3. Teens make decisions based on emotional “hunches” – Because the teen brain does not have the neurological development (yet!) for these important functions taken on by the frontal lobe, they make decisions deeper in their brain, using the Amygdala, which is where our emotions are centered.  In research, using brain scans, teens have been shown pictures of people and asked what emotion they were expressing in the picture.  Teens tended to respond based upon their own experience, rather than putting themselves in shoes of those pictured.  They made an emotional decision based upon their own experience of the picture, and emotional “hunch.” 

The good news about this is that the brain continues to grow and grows through this difficult stage.  The bad news is that teens have a difficult time making good decisions.  As you can imagine, when emotions enter into the decision, their ability is further hampered.

Also, the impact of controlled substances (drugs or alcohol), as you can imagine, is very potent.  Most drugs, such as marijuana and alcohol, impact the nervous system (brain and spinal cord) by slowing down the processing.  People typically experience a narrowing of reaction time and a slowed mental capacity.  This slowing, as you can imagine, slows the use of the frontal lobe and teens tend to respond more readily to their emotions rather than “thinking brain” because this area is dulled.  More emotional decisions occur, such as “drunken dialing” or overblown fights.  At times, drugs can heighten a teens emotional experience (Ecstasy, methamphetamine) and distort their thinking ability further, so that they rely more heavily on emotional experiences.  In short, drugs and alcohol impair and already underdeveloped brain in a direction that leads to poor decisions.

So, what can adults in our teen’s lives do about this situation. 

  1. They must borrow your frontal lobe:  Because theirs is under construction, yours is vital for them.  However, often the lectures fall on deaf ears.  Talk your teen through tough decisions. Help them weigh options.  Work through arguments for both sides of the situation.  These activities help a teen exercise, and literally grow, their frontal lobe.  By using these pathways, they become more efficient over time.
  2. Work with your teen’s strengths:  Every teen is good at many things.  During adolescence, for example, creativity often blossoms as we work to form our identity.  Work with these strengths in helping your teen make a decision.  What do they already know well?  How does their good understanding of people come into play here?  Can they use their creativity to come up with a third option in a difficult decision?  Use what they are good at and help them apply that to the situation.
  3. Strengthen your relationship with your teen:  They need you now more than ever!  These are difficult decisions that have a big impact on their lives?  Should I hang out with these people?  Party vs. homework?  Is pot harmful?  Should I use birth control?  These are big decisions that teens do not always bring to us, but if we can build our relationship with them they are more likely to.  Tips on building the relationship include:
    1. Get where they are coming from:  Life is busy, and we all have things to do.  Get where your teen is coming from.  What do they like, what do they hate?  Why do they like or hate that?  What is it like to be a teen in the 21st Century?
    2. Truly listen:  Do not listen for what you want to hear, but listen to what they ARE saying.  Teens are often very good at communicating things (sometimes with words and sometimes without).  Listen to more than their words, listen to their body language, their behavior and their moods.
    3. Engage in activities they like to do:  Maybe you do not like to shop at the mall or hang out at a park watching skateboarders, but they do.  Do that with them.  Let them lead you into parts of their life.  Don’t invade their life, but follow them into their life and learn about them through those experiences.

As we move into Spring, take this opportunity to see your teen in a new light.  Remember they are continuing to develop in the inside and on the outside, and that they need your support through this difficult time.  Teens are facing increased pressure these days from a variety of sources (social, academic, economic and emotional).  These pressures can have a strong impact on their ability to make good decisions.  In a sense, teens are already under the influence when they make any decision.  They need our help and support to minimize the impact of these decisions.  Without our support, they often have a difficult time making the effective decisions they need to in order to continue to grow into their own confident and powerful selves.

For more information:  There is a very good Frontline show called “Inside the Teenage Brain” that teens and their adults should watch.  It can be seen via my website ( or through the Frontline website directly.

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