Replenishing Energy with Healthy Inputs: The Power of Balance in Preventing Youth Substance Use

By Michal Lloyd

“The brain is wider than the sky.”  Emily Dickinson

Brains are in the news, and there are endless books and programs about the extraordinary human brain. There are brain training games, brain foods, special headbands, and workouts focused on improving mental capacity. Our head has a machine so powerful it manages sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste!–Way. There is no engine more powerful. Learning how our brains function best and helping our children manage their mental health is critical to raising healthy children. 

Brain science is indeed remarkable, and also practical. I am someone who falls victim to trends. Trends imply that changes happen in an instant. Changes to our bodies and minds occur slowly. Fish is good for your brain, but you can’t see the results in your test scores after a month of shrimp tacos. 

Everyone has a quick solution. I recently read that if you draw with your non-dominant hand, you can access the creative side of your brain more easily. Or if you practice journal writing, you sleep better. So yes, I’m game. I experimented with these hacks. I’ve taken ice-cold showers to improve my mood. You could say I drank the preverbal Kool-Aid. I am a card-carrying member of the hack of the month club. 

But alas, change doesn’t happen overnight. After all of my experiments, the one thing I have found to be more accurate is that what you put in is what you get out of your body, mind, and spirit. 

Many years ago, I lived in Idaho’s backcountry off the grid. During the summer, I made meals for river guests on lodge stays along the Salmon River. The ranch I lived at had a Pelton Water Wheel, which was hooked up to the lodge’s electrical system. The way it worked is that a flume brought water from Little Mallard Creek along a mountain and deposited it into a pond called a penstock pond. The pond was at the top of a hill, and a large pipe delivered water to the Petton. The water in the pond was stored as energy to create electricity. As long as the pond was full, then the energy would be consistent. 

When guests got off the river, they inevitably went to their bunk houses to shower–using an electric water heater, blowing dry their hair, and using their electric razors. I would be in the kitchen getting ready for dinner. The lights would dim and I could hear the sound of the electricity cycling faster and faster. I would visualize the pond draining and imagine the penstock pond empty. Then the lights would go out – no water, no lights, no hair dryer. The lodge would be so quiet. I would have to get on the six-wheeler, drive up the hill, block the output, and wait for the pond to refill. 

The lesson I took from this was that what you put in needs to be equal to what you take out. This goes for kids. Kids need physical activity, healthy food, positive relationships, safe environments, and big love. They are all inputs. What goes into your child’s life needs to be a constant and steady stream of “good things.” 

This is how we can build children’s resilience and inoculate them in advance for challenges like experimental drug and alcohol use. 

We all need to keep our energy supply steady. Putting in things that replenish our pond. I need alone time to recharge. I need to work on projects that satisfy my need to feel I have a purpose. I also like to just read a good book. That’s what resupplies my penstock pond. You can tell when your child is running on empty, and you can help them recharge with healthy inputs. 

Here are a few pond recharging tips. They won’t feel like a lightning bolt you expect from an instant hack, but they are crucial in restoring and expressing energy in a safe and healthy way.

  • Ensure your children get enough sleep.
  • Provide healthy and balanced meals for your kids.
  • Encourage physical activity and exercise.
  • Promote time away from screens.
  • Engage in problem-solving activities to stimulate their minds.
  • Teach them relaxation techniques such as mindfulness or deep breathing.
  • Foster a positive attitude towards learning, exploration, and discovery.
  • Expose them to new experiences that are both educational and entertaining. 
  • Monitor the amount of stress they experience on a regular basis.
  • Model healthy relationships, especially with your significant other     

Youth engage in risk-taking behaviors, but risks can be healthy too. Encouraging healthy risk-taking and challenges in addition to other positive inputs can replace dangerous risk taking and prevent or delay substance use. Preventing or delaying alcohol and other substance use until after adolescence, an important period for brain development, decreases the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder later in life.

To learn more about teen brain development, teen behavior, and preventing substance use, visit the  Partnership to End Addiction.