If you are the parent of a teen, the teacher of a teen, the coach of a teen, or someone who has ever seen a teen, you may have noticed that they think and behave differently from most adults. Rest assured that there is a biological explanation for this.

The brains of adolescents are still growing and maturing; different parts of the brain grow at different times. Take the prefrontal cortex (PFC), for example. The PFC is the part of the brain that controls reasoning and moderates social behavior. It does not finish maturing until adulthood. On the other hand, the amygdala, the region of the brain associated with emotional responses including risk taking, develops early in adolescence. Uh oh! Because the amygdala develops before the PFC, teens may act impulsively before thinking, and substance abuse may result.

With many schools being online, education about substance abuse may be taking a back seat to algebra, English, and social studies. But it is essential to educate our teens about marijuana and vaping.

Each year, more than 42,000 students from almost 400 schools in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades complete the Monitoring the Future (MTF) Survey about their behaviors, attitudes, and values on drug use. The most important finding to emerge from the 2019 survey is the continued dramatic increase in vaping by adolescents. Vaping involves using an e-cigarette device that heats a liquid into a vapor that is inhaled. The vapor can contain marijuana, nicotine, or other substances.

From 2018 to 2019, the number of teens vaping marijuana in the month before the survey almost doubled. This was the second highest increase seen since the inception of Monitoring the Future in 1975. In fact, teen marijuana use is at its highest level in 30 years and teens today are more likely to use marijuana than tobacco.

These trends in adolescent substance abuse are alarming yet not unexpected; their brains are acting on impulse without adequately considering the consequences. If the experience is repeated, the brain reinforces the neural links between pleasure and drug-taking, making the association stronger. This explains why the younger people are when they start using drugs, the more likely they are to become addicted.

A recent pilot study explored teens’ knowledge about vaping and marijuana. From a 12-item survey tool, three significant misconceptions were identified:

First, the majority answered “True” to the statement: “In certain states, recreational marijuana is legal for teens.” While many states have legalized the use of marijuana for those age 21 and older, use by children and teenagers is not legal anywhere in the United States.

Second, many teens responded “True” to the statement: “Marijuana is not addictive.” Psychological and physical symptoms can result from stopping marijuana abruptly in a frequent user, which shows that it can be addictive.

Third, many teens incorrectly responded “False” to the statement: “If someone vapes around you, you can have health consequences.” In fact, research has shown that bystanders can experience cough and lung irritation from secondhand vaping fumes. In addition, in a recent study, teens with asthma who were exposed to secondhand vaping were more likely to have an asthma attack.

As challenging as it may be to correct teens’ misconceptions about marijuana and vaping, health education needs to take place in the kitchen, in the family room, or, even better, in the car. (In the car, your teenager can’t escape – and neither can you.)

Our advice: Start the conversation about substance abuse when children are age 9 or 10, and continue it as long as they are living under your roof. Psst: It turns out that kids do listen to their parents. Research has shown that if kids know how their parents feel about drug use, and if they know that they can ask their parents for help, they are less likely to try drugs. Here are some tips on discussing marijuana and vaping with your child:

  • Ask what they have heard about marijuana and vaping.
  • Talk about the risks associated with marijuana and vaping.
  • Remind them that, as your child, they can talk with you about anything at any time. It’s essential.

Monica Hehir is an adolescent-medicine nurse practitioner who recently completed her doctorate degree at Jefferson College of Nursing. Rima Himelstein is a pediatrician and adolescent-medicine specialist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.