Conversations with youngsters: the relationship between a healthy lifestyle and the developing brain

By Emily Moser

Has your son ever finished his homework but forgotten to turn it in? Has your daughter known about an upcoming practice or rehearsal but neglected until the last minute to let you know so you can figure out transportation? Have your kids failed to think through things in other ways?

Chalking up such moments merely to irresponsibility among otherwise mostly responsible kids may miss a good part of what really is going on. Their occasional inability to connect the dots may in part be because their young brains are still developing.

Thanks to science, we know enormous brain growth and development occurs during childhood and, in fact, continues until people reach their mid-20s. One of the last areas of the brain to develop during adolescence is the pre-frontal cortex, responsible for controlling reasoning and impulses. This fact and others highlight how vital it is that we as parents help our kids
connect their actions – and inactions – to short- and long-term consequences. This lays a solid foundation of understanding as they move into the teen years and their independence grows, and when their choices carry more weight.

From birth, the brain is a work in progress. Just as we talk with youngsters about the fact that their bodies are changing on the outside, we can also draw their attention to the fact that their brains are still developing. Teaching kids to care for their body and mind, and
educating them about the value of doing so from an early age, is an important ongoing conversation with our children.

Here are a few tips:

Youngsters today relate well to technology, so consider framing your conversation around the idea that the brain is the body’s computer. When it’s taken care of, it operates efficiently.

Many kids like to learn how things work. Invite them to join you in learning about the human brain, and talk with them about what science tells us about how it works. Scour the Internet and your local library for accurate and helpful information.

When talking about caring for their body, use examples from your children’s life. Do they like sports? Do they play an instrument or sing in the choir? Do they belong to an after-school club? Talk with them about how eating well and getting enough sleep fuels their
mind for the activities they enjoy and helps them grow and be healthy. Framing conversations this way gives the issue genuine application in their life.

Stress, too, that putting harmful things in their body affects growth and development.
Encourage conversations with your kids by asking open-ended questions about what they know
about such things as alcohol and other drugs, and how different substances impact the body
and mind. Do they know, for example, that studies suggest alcohol impacts both behavior and
brain function differently in adolescents and adults, and that adolescents are more
vulnerable than adults to the effects of alcohol on learning and memory? Adolescents need
only drink half as much as adults to suffer the same negative effects. These conversations
are invaluable to begin having when kids are young because, as any parent with a teen knows,
they tend to view themselves as indestructible.

When talking with kids about alcohol and other drugs, don’t be concerned if they
raise an issue you’re unfamiliar with or ask a question you don’t know the answer to. Invite
them to help you find the answer, then talk together about what you learned. This is a great
way to stress the facts of substance use – your kids may hear things from peers or other
sources that are simply incorrect – and to begin or continue a conversation about your
family’s rules and consequences when it comes to alcohol and other drugs.

If your child drops the ball in some way, try to avoid “fixing” the situation – despite how
much you may want to. Obviously parents need to step in if a situation is dangerous for a
child, but allowing kids to experience natural consequences is a potent lesson.

If your child’s actions or inactions have negative consequences, and if you’re angry about
it, realize that what you feel is entirely normal. But take time to gather your thoughts and
talk with them about the situation and the lessons they can learn to avoid similar
circumstances.

Keep talking and capitalize on teaching moments, especially when it comes to choices
around substance use. Connecting with kids about prevention is most effective when it is more
than a one-time conversation. In society today, substance use unfortunately is prevalent in
the news, in movies and via the Internet. To the extent your child is exposed to this
information, use it in a positive way to talk with them about making healthy choices.

So, consider yourself empowered by information. Science is making great strides in our
understanding of the effects of alcohol and other drugs, as well as the workings of the
brain. For more details on the developing teen brain, please visit the user-friendly Web site
www.drugfree.org/teenbrain/. As parents, drawing on and conveying this information to our
kids in a meaningful way, over time, can help them stay healthy and make smart choices as
they grow.

Parents and other caregivers seeking resources about keeping their young people safe, healthy
and drug free may contact Southern Oregon Drug Awareness at 541-789-4028 (www.sodaweb.org),
or the Josephine County Substance Abuse Community Action Team and Shawn Martinez at 541-474-
5234.

Emily Moser is the director of parenting programs at Oregon Partnership, a statewide
nonprofit that exists to end substance abuse and suicide. For more information and parenting
resources, please visit www.orpartnership.org and www.faceitparents.com, or call 503-244-
5211.