Does parenting scare the sh*t out of anyone else? Or am I the only one… I’m so grateful our school district offers Parent Education Nights. I love that they have our backs and our arming us with the knowledge and tools we need to help our kids grow into amazing beings. This lecture caught my attention because it touched on the topic of adolescent depression. I worry about this more than anything else, because to be frank, my family history tells me I have to. I’ve seen how it cripples people. I’ve seen it lead loved ones to roads of addiction and substance abuse. I’ve seen it take them to dark and potentially fatal places… And after the births of both my boys, depression in the form of postpartum snuck up on me too. Maybe in a mild manner, but I finally understood how scary it is to say out loud, “I don’t know what is wrong with me.” Not knowing why you feel so incredibly sad when you have a pretty stinkin’ great life is terrifying. And it’s truly something one can’t understand until they experience it themselves. So of course I worry that my kids will experience a form of it at some point in their lives. And of course I want to be prepared. Dr. Fidlin’s lecture provided great insight into the how, what and why’s of a adolescent’s brain. I feel like the more we understand about this topic, the more compassion and empathy we can throw their way. And who doesn’t need more of that in the world we live in?
Below are cliff notes taken from Brian M. Fidlin, Psy. D.’s presentation on Pediatric Brain Development.
If one was to lay the brain out on the table like an unfolded map, it would measure approximately 3′ x 3′. Pretty crazy when we typically imagine it fitting snug into a space that’s roughly 3″ x 4″. Photographs of the brain lead us to believe that it’s this solid, rigid mass. Yet if someone was to lift our brain (weighing approximately 3lbs) from our skull, it would immediately fall apart. In actuality, it’s consistency is most comparable to that of scrambled eggs (*mind blown*). Bottom line, helmet up!
Before a child is born, his/her brain will have 12 trillion plasticity cells connecting to the child’s thought, behavior, perception and emotion. From the very beginning, our brains build patterns based on where we are and who we’re with. For children this means they will act differently at home than they do at school, than they do at their neighbor’s house, with their baseball team, on the bus, etc. Almost as if they have multiple personalities. These different patterns eventually overlap around the age of 24. With maturity comes identity. We’ll begin to act the same at work as we do at home, as we do with our spouse, as we do with our friends. Not the case for adolescents, however.
As parents, we lecture our kids about sex, drugs, alcohol, responsibilities, etc. They know this stuff. We talk about it often. But once they enter let’s say a drinking environment, the parts of the brain that hold our lecture have now moved to the back where they’re not as prominent. They are literally buried. New cells as a result of this “different environment/different friends” have now moved forward, and they speak much louder than our lecture ever could. It’s almost as if our talk never happened. So what is our solution then?! Dr. Fidlin’s answer was that we should be playing a role in all of their environments. Volunteer at school, get involved with after school activities, attend games and dance recitals, know their friends, befriend the parents of these friends. Build a community, get involved and stay connected. When our kids see us involved in their lives outside of the home, those important talks will follow.
- When studying the brain, waves in an EEG that are generally higher in electricity are common with disorders such as bipolar and manic depression. Low electricity waves are common in clinical depression. Clinical depression studies have been linked to alteimhers and dementia later on in life.
HOW BRAIN CELLS COMMUNICATE
The average kid’s brain runs 4-5 tracks; one being the main track that places the most focus on a single subject. The other tracks pick up background noise, surroundings, etc, and are able to tune them out in order to focus on the subject at hand. I would also assume these tracks go hand-in-hand with the ability to multi-task. Kids with ADD or ADHD run on 8-12 tracks, however. These kids are born like this. They are typically very bright but inconsistent. They are often creative, clever thinkers and show corky skills because their brains operate on a different level. They can be great athletes who are aware of what’s happening around them at all times… Gifted in music while being able to play guitar and sing simultaneously… Artistic with expression and thoughts. Dr. Fidlin had said in more or less words, if the world was on the brink of catastrophic disaster, he’d prefer to be in a room full of ADHD students because they would be the ones who would come up with that one brilliant, outlandish idea that would save us all.
- Kids with ADD and ADHD are often times over medicated. In the days of Ritalin, a medicated child with ADHD would go from 8-12 tracks down to 2-3 (well below normal) causing them to become zombie-like. Of course some kids need to be medicated, but he suggests if your child loses their sparkle (their personality changes and they’re just not themselves anymore), chances are they’ve been over prescribed.
SEROTONIN AND STRESS
Serotonin runs every single one of our emotions. It controls our appetite and works with Melatonin to regulate our sleep.
Our brains have serotonin pathways that are either narrow or wide. Imagine being able to manage more on your plate if you have wide pathways and less on your plate if your pathways are narrow. These pathways also manage our stress levels. Some of us can handle more stress than others. Pathways are controlled by genetics. If your parents have narrow pathways, you will have the same. Our pathways effect our max capacity (the most we can handle and take on), and our max capacity cannot grow with age/experience/time. Don’t try to push your child to take on more and more if they simply cannot handle it.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
When we encounter a situation that makes us stressed, our serotonin level drops. When we cannot solve our problem right away, our brains begin looping by asking the “what if” questions. Ex: I just got pulled over. How do I get out of this? Brain starts to think of excuses to tell the officer. I receive a ticket anyway. Brain starts to ask how will I pay for this? I go to bed that night not being able to turn my brain off (looping). What if I would have said this to the cop? What if I would have taken this road instead? Now I’m no longer making the serotonin I need to feel happy.
The difference between this with kids is that they are growing up in a world of fear. They are not equipped well enough yet where they can solve their own problems. If they don’t like their school, they can’t do much about it. We as adults can, but the child doesn’t have the capacity to make that decision yet. Whereas if we as adults don’t like our jobs, we have the option to quit tomorrow. How this effects kids is that they become critically low on serotonin. This effects their sleep, throws off their appetite where they will either lose weight because they’re stressed or gain weight because they are stress-eating. An indication of this can be noticed in irregular bowel movements (constipation or diarrhea).
We experience four emotions as human beings. Happiness, anger, sadness and the strongest one being fear. As serotonin levels drop, the hardest emotion for the brain to receive is happiness. Life event + serotonin = emotion. Ex: You come home from work every day so excited to see your child. They tell you about their day. You listen because the joy in their voice makes you happy. This is what happens when your serotonin levels are normal. When you’re stressed however, and placed in the same exact scenario, the last thing you want to do is listen to your kid’s annoying voice tell you what the shape of their chicken nugget was that they ate for lunch. You don’t care. You’re now feeling anger. For children to experience this is much worse as they are highly sensitive. When sadness drops to it’s lowest level, we’ve reached The Void. We become so depressed, we actually physically hurt. We cope with it by sleeping the day away, withdraw ourselves from others, throw ourselves into a hobby that consumes us to keep our brains busy… Some of us will deal with this void by using drugs and alcohol to cope.
If you can’t feel happiness anymore, feeling high is the next best thing. Why? Because for a short time, you’re able to forget about how miserable you are. But by choosing this quick fix, you’ll be presented with new problems. You lost your job. Your girlfriend broke up with you. You’re flunking out of college. Your serotonin levels are now dangerously low. You stop caring, and your brain begins to panic. It’s now trying to shock you with suicidal thoughts. You think about what it would be like if you weren’t here anymore. If peoples lives would be easier without you. You start to ponder about how you will end your life.
- The average human being will experience depression 3 – 5 times throughout their life.
TO INCREASE SEROTONIN LEVELS:
Get enough sleep. Have a routine bed time and a routine wake up time. Do not nap. Unless you’re a toddler, avoid napping.
Turn off electronics one hour prior to bed. TVs, phones, ipads, video games, etc. Avoid kindles for reading. Read a hard copy book instead. Avoid having electronics in bedrooms.
Proper nutrition: Avoid high sugars and alcohol. Manage carbs. VEGGIES are best to increase serotonin levels. Especially squash, 3x daily. While Multi-Vites are easy, they don’t contain all the great nutrition you get from vegetables.
Physical activity: Exercise. Get outside if you can!
Find things they/you enjoy: Dr. Fidlin was a huge advocate of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts for the simple reason that kids will be introduced to a variety of different hobbies and activites. Try different sports, and don’t take your kids out of something they’ve only experienced for one season.
Therapy. Don’t be above it. It’s great to talk it out. It feels good getting stuff off your chest and lifts a burden off of you when you actually voice thoughts outloud to someone.
Manage your social media. It’s the downfall of this generation. It’s full of lies. Where are the images of the dirty laundry, mound of dishes, unmade beds and piles of clothes? Where is the chaos of toys that have been lying on the living room floor for two days straight? Where are the screaming kids in mismatched clothing? If we were to be real with each other, we’d realize we’re not alone. We’d have conversations about real things that matter. We’d put these stigmas to rest about depression and addiction because we know now that they certainly don’t discriminate. We wouldn’t put unrealistic expectations on new parents. We’d stop putting so much pressure on our kids, and just let. them. be. kids. They’d see that we’re not perfect. They’d see us as human. We make mistakes, we learn from them and move on.
His challenge for us next week… Invite people over for dinner. But don’t clean on their behalf. And let that dinner be ordered out as a pizza.
If your school district doesn’t offer Parent Education Nights yet, I encourage you to bring it up with your school board. When parents come together, it’s just another way for us to prevent our kids from falling through the cracks. As always, it takes a village. It’s our job to look after one another.