Thursday, May 6, 2010

Adolescents of All Ages

I had the pleasure on Thursday morning of attending and staffing a LifeRing exhibit table at the 13th Annual Northern California Tobacco, Alochol, Drug, School Wellness & Youth Development Conference for Educators, held at the Clark Kerr Conference Center of UC Berkeley.

The attendees were teachers, counselors, and community leaders from seven Northern California counties. All were concerned with prevention and treatment of the tobacco, alcohol, and other drug issue among young people, particularly teenagers.

The most frequent question to me was "Do you have meetings for teens?"  Since, at the moment, none of our meetings is limited by age group, my answer had to be, "Our meetings are open to adolescents of all ages."  That got a laugh.

There was a universally positive reaction to a secular option for sobriety support.  A number of people volunteered that a lot of teens tended to resist the religious aspects of the 12-step groups.  
The problem is how to convert the positive reception we get from educators working with teens into actual meetings -- or some other organized presence -- in the schools.

A few years ago the counseling staff at a local high school wanted to start a set of support groups, including LifeRing, on campus.  The initiative was killed by the principal, not because of any animus toward LifeRing, but -- observers believed -- because the program would call attention to the campus drug problem and taint the school's reputation.

I had brought only 50 local meeting schedules to the conference, and these went quickly. This wasn't a book-buying crowd -- didn't sell one book -- but the schedules and brochures got into a lot of hands.  Maybe some of them will trickle down into the hands of some wide-awake students.

The keynote speaker at the conference, Dr. Ken Winters of the U of Minnesota, presented a PowerPoint entitled "This is Your Brain on Adolescence."  It featured MRI scans of brains lit up by cocaine and charts of dopamine levels -- the scenes a faire of addiction lectures.  It carried a sound and important message about the lifetime dangers of early alcohol and other drug use.  The adolescent brain is engaged in a major neural reorganization, a very bad time to be throwing addictive drugs into the works.

Still, the notion that teen behavior and attitudes generally, and the proclivity to do drugs in particular, are rooted in developmental brain anatomy, is overly broad and unfair. Only a minority of teens do drugs.  Some teens are impulsive, others are cautious.  Some take risks, others avoid them.  For every teen who has impaired judgment, there is another who is wise beyond their years.  We certainly see kids who do drugs and hide it from their parents, but we also see kids who fight hard to get their parents off drugs and into treatment.  Bottom line:  teens deserve as much respect as adults for their individuality, their wisdom, and the choices they make.  

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