Growing a brain is like growing a tree. We provide the environment, the soil, the food, the water, and the light. The tree grows the best it can in that environment. If any of the factors we provide are inadequate or harmful, the tree adapts and grows the best it can anyway. But it might be more susceptible to disease, because it doesn’t have all the environmental support it needs.
Kids are like this, too. They adapt to their surroundings. A kid in a dangerous home has to develop skills to survive that home. This kid may be so busy learning survival skills that there isn’t time to learn what’s needed to be a good student. A kid in a supportive, safe home does not develop those skills, but is able to learn other skills that are more useful in larger society. This kid is able to build the resources to protect against adversity in the future. The kid who spends most of the time just surviving home is much more vulnerable to challenges.
When we look at all the stages kids pass through, it can help to think of them as the holder of a growing brain, and of ourselves as the environment for that brain. Do we want to train that brain to worry all the time? Or do we want to teach it to calm itself? And do we want that kid to look to us when the answers aren’t clear, or do we allow them to go it alone? Our relationship is the soil our kids are growing in.
In my early adult life, I was a research neuroscientist, studying how brains become addicted. I’ve now worked for ten years in clinical and school social work, with kids from ages 3-18. I always think of them first as a fellow human being, but also as a brain that is growing and adapting with every interaction it has. It lends a great weight to how I conduct myself around students and my own kids.
And yet, all of us adults used to be kids. We were the growing brains in our parents’ environment. We come to our job of adulthood with a load of protective factors and risk factors that we did not choose. Add to that the job of parenting, which can bring down even the strongest of us at 3 in the morning, and the responsibility feels enormous.
But kids are resilient. We know from years of research that it can take only ONE strong, positive adult relationship in the life of a kid to provide the resilience that kid needs . This speaks to the power of relationships. ONE positive adult relationship can overpower the effects of other types of adversity. Ideally, the kids who pass through our schools and businesses encounter more than just one of us who cares and takes time to know them.
So, the tree in poor soil is more vulnerable to disease. Likewise, kids in difficult environments are more susceptible to the addicting effects of alcohol and other drugs. Most drugs of abuse are depressants, which means they calm the central nervous system. So any kid with an elevated level of stress will get a greater sense of calming relief from the first drink or hit than a kid who is not chronically stressed. The brain reward system is then tricked into thinking what just got inhaled or ingested is good for it. That begins the process of creating a wish for more, potentially leading to addiction. The brain with fewer protective factors is more likely to have a powerful addictive reaction when exposed to drugs and alcohol.
We adults can put stress on our kids in so many ways at all ages. There is relationship stress in the household between adults and siblings. There is what I call success stress--that’s my term for the feeling that you have to meet uncountable academic and extracurricular demands to get into the right college. And there is the stress a kid absorbs from us when we are unable to manage our own emotions. We can’t be perfect, but knowing that these factors affect kids’ vulnerability to drugs and alcohol might help us set priorities.
Throughout the Partners in Prevention website, you can find resources for parenting kids at all ages. Even at a very early age, we can have a goal of keeping them resistant to the effects of alcohol and other drugs. We can’t do this all perfectly, and even the most protected kids can develop addictions. But of all the things that impact kids’ brains, our relationships with them are the most powerful, and they are within our control.
Guest post written by:
Amy Naleid, PhD, LICSW
Mental Health Coordinator
Wayzata Public Schools