Commentary: Teaching Self-Regulation May be the Best Way to Influence Drug-Taking Decisions by Kids

Acknowledging that ongoing brain development during adolescence is linked to self-regulation is an important perspective for youth-serving professionals and parents as they address teenage substance use/dependence – including prescription drug diversion.

Most brain material is in place at the start of adolescence. In most cases, the size of the brain is also established by the teen years. Yet, MRI studies and other techniques tell us that several important developmental processes in the brain continue throughout adolescence. Frequently, the result is a teenager whose body may be nearly fully developed, but not his or her brain.

As this essential “hard wiring” matures, what we as parents and others experience is a kid who may be moody; many times reckless and impulsive; increasingly secretive; more prone to be influenced by friends; and when it comes to making decisions, more prone to focus on rewards that may result from acting in a certain way – and less interested in thinking through negative consequences.

Parents and treatment providers cannot stop brain maturation, but we can shape it. One path may be to teach important self-regulation skills that are related to decision making. This way we help strengthen what may be a “weakness” for the adolescent brain.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices identifies these skills as impulse control, “second” thought processes; social decision-making, dealing with risk situations and taking healthy risks.

Bottom line: just telling the teenager about the rules and expectations is not enough. Helping guide a teenager as to how he or she might handle a challenging situation is better for self-regulation. Some examples:

“Call home and we will come and get you, rather than you getting a ride home with a drunk friend.”

“Let’s review how you’re going to say ‘no’ when you’re faced with pressure from your friends to do something you know is wrong.”

“Don’t just act on an impulse. Pause and think of options, then act.”

Parents, doctors, treatment providers and educators are crucial to influencing teenagers’ decisions for or against drinking or drug taking. Teaching developmentally appropriate self-regulation skills may make better sense than asking something of a young person whose brain isn’t (yet) fully capable of delivering the action requested. Certainly, exercising developmentally appropriate influence to account for those times is a role for all of us.

Ken C. Winters, PhD is Associate Director of the Parents Translational Research Center at the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia. He is also Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Director, Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research, at the University of Minnesota.

11 Responses to Commentary: Teaching Self-Regulation May be the Best Way to Influence Drug-Taking Decisions by Kids

  1. Linda Cheek, MD | January 31, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    One of the main messages kids need to receive most adults don’t even realize. Only alternative medicine providers and their followers do. That is, exposure to drugs not only affects the person taking them, but their offspring. Genes are changed by the exposure, and those genes are passed on. What the gene change can cause is a propensity or need for that particular drug. I think if more teens realized they are potentially creating drug addicts in their children, not just experimenting themselves, the intelligent ones would think twice. More info on my web site.

    • Dad | February 18, 2012 at 4:30 am

      the “intelligent” ones, Dear Dr. Cheek? Many things come to mind in response to your notion that the capacity and ability to process and understand that taking drugs is bad for health and also potentially bad for any future childrens’ health is reserved for the ‘intelligent’ teens. I think the main point in response to that notion is that as parents we need to engage our kids with a demonstrated belief that they are in fact intelligent and can process information regarding their health. A teens, any teens, education as well as their sense of sense of confidence is supported best when we assume that every teen is intelligent and absolutely has the capacity to take in and process information about their health toward that of making better decisions about it.

  2. Grainne Kenny | January 31, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    Ken Winters advice is right on the ball. I have been involved in drug education and counselling families for many years and there is no doubt in my mind that saying no is never enough. You have to teach kids how to resist when in a difficult situation with their peers. In other words to think for themselves. A good start is in the home by open and frank discussions that teach the young person how to think ahead without being slapped down.

  3. Erin Scott-Haines | January 31, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    It’s so nice to start hearing talk of self-regulation, I believe it is the key!
    - Erin Scott-Haines, Movement Psychotherapist

  4. Jim Sharp | January 31, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    This certainly opens up an area for prevention. As a treatment professional it has been evident that persons in treatment for addiction generally have deficiencies in self- regulation – and not only in their difficulties tolerating cravings, withdrawal, etc. As most people with addictions start using by early adolescence, dosing becomes the coping mechanism of choice and alternative approaches to self-regulation are neglected.

  5. CASAFamilyDay | February 1, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    It’s true that words aren’t enough; parents must be engaged in their teens’ lives by guiding them in the right direction and using all the tools at their disposal – experience, reason, patience and enforcing house rules.

  6. Darla Huddleston | February 3, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    We have been teaching students how to refuse risky activities in the area of sex, drugs alcohol and violence in sexual abstinence education for years. It’s nice to see our beliefs about self-regulation and risk avoidance rather then risk reduction validated by someone of Dr. Winter’s caliber.

  7. Ben House | February 4, 2012 at 1:15 am

    The power of no is paradoxical. Please, do not think about anything yellow. Our brain is hard wired in the positive mode. Dr. Winter has something here. Helping adolescents and adults understand how we make decisions and how to use the higher brain powers to think things through has worked in my practice far more effectively that just saying no.

  8. Hal Pickett | February 6, 2012 at 11:19 am

    Great comments. I also just read an article in the Washington Post that states American Parents need to start these self-regulation skills early. Compared to French children, whose parents pride themselves in saying no, American kids are not developing self-soothing or self-regulation skills.

  9. Bonnie Catone (for Ken Winters) | February 9, 2012 at 8:33 am

    From Ken Winters, PhD: Sorry for the delay in responding to all these good comments. Self-regulation is definitely a concept that needs continuing research, and it comports very well with what science has told us about adolescent brain development. And consider this: NORMAL adolescent brain development tends to give rise to decision making by a teenager that favors perception of rewards, rather than a balanced consideration of both rewards and consequences. But some youth have an ABNORMAL problem with impulse control, and for them this reward bias is even more pronounced. This is why I strongly favor teaching such teenagers skills on how to resist impulse, delay gratification, and other decision making skills. For more information about this subject, go to the Parents Translational Research Center Facebook site where there are links to a Research Brief on this subject, as well as other resources that you might find useful.

    With regard to genetic predispositions, research has told us some important things (for example, genetic factors contribute about 30 – 40% to alcoholism), but we still have a long way to go in understanding how the mix of genetic and environmental leads one person to develop an alcohol problem and another person to not have a problem.

  10. Nancy | November 28, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    Thank you for the article. Recently we were told that our 14 year old daughter can no longer self-regulate. Her behavior has gotten completely out of control. However, how is it that she can still maintain straight A’s in school, when other areas of her life she cannot self regulate??

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