One of the most important duties for the parents of teenagers, according to Solana Beach family medicine physician Ellen Rodarte, is to nag their children.
“We have to constantly nag them and warn them about the risks of things. That’s our job,” said Rodarte, who practices at Sharp Rees-Stealy’s Del Mar medical center. “They are supposed to be annoyed with us and say ‘leave us alone’ and we are supposed to nag them.”
In particular, said Rodarte, 43, teens need to be reminded of the risks of using drugs and alcohol and sexual activity, topics that may be uncomfortable for both sides. And the recent ballot measure that legalized marijuana for recreational use in California means that the potential dangers posed by the drug must be reinforced for young people.
Rodarte, who grew up in Solana Beach, went away for medical school and then came back to practice, sees everyone from newborns to adults in her practice. But she has a special message for the teenagers who come in to her clinic.
“Every teen visit is an opportunity to talk to families about two important subjects - drugs, alcohol and tobacco, and the other is sexual activity,” she said.
It’s especially important to talk to teenagers about risky behaviors and their consequences, she said, because the part of the brain that can understand consequences doesn’t fully develop until a person is in his or her early 20s.
“It’s just how their brains are built. Their brains are built to crave risk, said Rodarte. “They are at high risk to do bad things in their teen years. We know in medicine that we have to talk to teens about some of these risky behaviors and what the consequences are.”
Rodarte said she will start the conversation with both teens and parents present, and then ask the parents to leave so that she can speak to the teens privately. Confidentiality rules prevent her from sharing what the teens tell her, unless she learns they are being abused or want to harm themselves.
Some parents get angry when she speaks to their children about such sensitive topics, but Rodarte said she feels it is her duty to make sure that teens get the information they need about risky behaviors.
If the parents don’t want her to talk to their kids, said Rodarte, then she tells them they must have such conversations at home.
The point, she said, is to hammer home the negative consequences over and over by telling teens stories from real life about people they have known, or even the parents’ own experiences.
As for marijuana use, she said, even though adults can legally use the drug, it is still illegal for those under 21 years old. While occasional use of marijuana may not be the end of the world, she said, abuse of the drug can have a host of ill effects on a developing teenage brain, from being a gateway to harder drugs, to “amotivational syndrome,” basically not wanting to do anything. Studies have also suggested that heavy marijuana use as a teenager can lead to higher risk of developing schizophrenia later in life, she said.
Marijuana is also addictive, she said. Although the withdrawal symptoms are not as severe as narcotics or certain other drugs, she said that withdrawing from pot can cause anxiety and irritability.
Since today’s teens face a lot of pressure at school, parents can help by modeling positive stress relief activities, such as exercise, relaxing with friends and getting plenty of sleep, Rodarte said.
Rodarte and her husband, who is also a physician, have three children, ages 5, 7 and 9, so she has a bit of time before she will have to deal with teenage brains in her own family. But she is prepared to follow her own advice and talk often to her children about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and sexual activity.
Resources for parents, she said, include the website www.drugabuse.gov, and the book, “The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults,” by Frances E. Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt.
“Our teens need extra support,” said Rodarte. “They need parents who are involved and present, and (set) loving, firm limits.”