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Home » #1 Foundation to Raising Mentally Strong Kids: Dr. Daniel Amen (Transcript)

#1 Foundation to Raising Mentally Strong Kids: Dr. Daniel Amen (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of child psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen’s talk titled “#1 Foundation to Raising Mentally Strong Kids” at AmenClinics.

Listen to the audio version here:


Core Conversations for Mentally Strong Kids

Raising mentally strong kids requires seven core conversations which apply to all kids, including young adults and those struggling with ADHD, anxiety, depression, or even autism. Let’s start with core conversations. Number one, brain health is foundational to mental strength. When your brain works right, you work right.

This applies to kids and adults of all ages. At Amen Clinics, we’ve been using a brain imaging study called SPECT that looks at blood flow and activity for the last 33 years to assess and treat our patients, including kids and teenagers. We’ve looked at over 250,000 scans on patients from 155 countries. The scans taught us that most psychiatric illnesses are not mental health issues at all, but rather they are brain health issues that steal people’s minds.

And this one idea changes everything. Get your brain healthy and your mind will follow. Here is a healthy SPECT scan compared to scans of young people affected by head trauma, infections, marijuana, and alcohol. The brain is an organ, just like your heart is an organ.

The Impact of a Healthy Brain

If you want your children to be mentally strong, if you want them to be responsible, confident, happy, kind, and resilient, if you want them to make good decisions and be focused and motivated and have great relationships, it starts by talking to them about having a healthy brain. When kids struggle, too often we blame the parents or parents blame themselves. Take Chris. I met him when he was 12.

He was diagnosed with ADHD when he was 6. He was hyperactive, restless, impulsive, conflict-seeking, and aggressive. His doctor prescribed Ritalin, but unfortunately it made him more aggressive and he started to hallucinate on it, which is a very rare side effect. When he was 8, Chris attacked a boy at school and he was placed in a psychiatric hospital.

The doctor there thought Chris was depressed and started him on an antidepressant, but it also made him worse. Since he was 6, he had been in therapy nearly every week. When I first saw him, he had been seeing the same therapist for two years. Every week he would go and every week the therapist told Chris’s mother that if only she would get into therapy and deal with her own childhood issues, Chris would not have a problem.

Blaming the Brain, Not the Parents

If a child has a problem, our society and even many therapists blame the parents. But what if they’re wrong? What if they are missing something much more foundational? What if they are missing a brain that is in trouble?

Blame the brain. I was on call the night Chris was admitted to the hospital after he again became aggressive at school. One of the things I used to do with my young patients was to get them all together and play basketball with them. That was a way for all of us to talk in a casual way to get to know each other and have some fun.

And that’s what I did with Chris the day after he was admitted. What I remember so distinctly about that particular day was that Chris was on my team and he cheated on every play. I mean every play. I felt like he was testing me, trying to get me to yell at him like his mother did.

Of course, I wasn’t going to yell at him, but what I was going to do, what I had already decided to do because he had failed many treatments, was scan his little brain to find out why he acted the way he did. His scan showed a dangerous combination of low activity in his left temporal lobe, an area often associated with violence, and low activity in his prefrontal cortex decreasing his impulse control. You’ve heard it said a picture is worth a thousand words, but a map is worth a thousand pictures. A map tells you where you are and gives you direction on how to get to where you want to go.

Mapping and Balancing the Brain

Without a map, you’re lost. Based on the scan, I put him on a combination of supplements that boost GABA to stabilize the temporal lobes, then something to boost dopamine to stimulate his prefrontal cortex to help with focus and impulse control in that order. If you get the order wrong, many people become worse.

In addition, I had this core conversation with Chris and his family and taught them to love their brains, which included a higher protein, healthy fat diet, and within weeks, Chris was a different child. He was happier, did better in school, and the aggressive outbursts stopped. His mother no longer looked like she was the problem.

Six years later, I gave a lecture at Chris’s high school on our program, Brain Thrive by 25, which teaches teens and young adults to love and care for their brains. Independent research shows this program decreases drug, alcohol, and tobacco use, decreases depression, and improves self-esteem.

When Chris saw me on the campus, he ran up to me, gave me a big hug, and introduced me to five of his friends. What do you think would have happened to Chris if I hadn’t mapped and balanced his brain? It’s likely that he would have been in jail, multiple psychiatric facilities, or dead. His mother would have continued to feel shame as if she was the cause of his problems.

The Three Strategies for Brain Health

You cannot parent your way out of a child’s troubled brain. But there is advanced technology now to understand and help their brains. Brain first. Whenever you are struggling, or your children are struggling, think about understanding and optimizing the brain.

Brain health is based on three primary strategies. They are so simple, even young kids can understand them. One, love your brain. It makes you who you are.

Two, avoid anything that hurts it. And three, engage in regular brain healthy habits. Starting the brain health conversation is easy with kids. Make a game of it.

Ever since our daughter Chloe was two, she and I played a game we called Chloe’s Game. I would say something and ask her, is this good for your brain or bad for it? For example, if I said avocados, she’d say two thumbs up, God’s butter. If I said blueberries, she’d put her hands on her hips and ask me if they were organic.

Non-organic blueberries hold more pesticides than almost any other fruit. If I said, of course they’re organic, she’d say two thumbs up, God’s candy. If I say get in a soccer ball with your head, she’d say thumbs down, no way, or talking back to your red-headed mother. Oh, that’s not good at all.

What’s Good and Bad for the Brain

Way too much stress. None of this is hard. When Chloe was in second grade, I went to her classroom and wrote 20 things on the board and asked the kids to separate which ones were good for the brain or bad for it. The only thing they missed was fruit juice, which they put in the healthy category, sorry, way too much sugar.

Some things are obviously bad for the brain, such as head injuries, poor sleep, poor quality food, and toxins like drugs, nicotine, and alcohol. Don’t believe the marketing hype. Vaping is not a healthier form of smoking, alcohol is not a health food, and marijuana is not innocuous. Teens who use marijuana have a higher incidence of anxiety, depression, psychosis, and suicide in their 20s.

I published a study with researchers from UCLA, USC, and UC San Francisco on nearly a thousand marijuana users showing every area of the brain was lower in activity. From childhood all the way into your mid-20s, the brain is undergoing wild development. Think of brain development as a vibrant city under construction. The roads are being laid down, buildings reach for the sky, and the infrastructure is being connected.

The Impact of Toxins on the Developing Brain

Using substances like alcohol or marijuana is like flooding the streets of this young city with toxic chemicals or taking wrecking balls to the new roads and buildings, damaging development and making it less likely young people will ever reach their full potential. Know the truth about toxins, decrease your own use, and make sure to educate and supervise your kids. Kids hate supervision, but they hate it more if you don’t do it because they think you don’t care about them.

Some things that are bad for the brain that might not be so obvious include digital addictions and excessive screen time because they wear out the brain’s pleasure centers and increase the risk of depression and ADHD.

Young people are relying more on social media as their primary source of human connection and they’re relying less and less on themselves and their families. 95% of young people use at least one social media platform and more than a third of them use social media almost constantly. Tech companies use the same strategy that casinos use to addict unsuspecting youngsters who start to crave more time on the free programs. If you aren’t paying for a product, then you are the product.

Social media companies manipulate kids by subtly changing the way they think, act, and spend money. They make money by having kids continually stay connected to see what others are doing and have others see what they’re doing, leading to toxic levels of being self-absorbed. Self-absorbed kids are unhappy kids. Children who spend more than three hours a day on social media have twice the risk of anxiety and depression. And on average today kids are spending three and a half hours a day on these platforms.

Delaying and Supervising Technology Use

If you want mentally strong kids, delay giving them cell phones, social media, and video games for as long as possible and it is critical to supervise their use. Core conversation number one, if you want your kids and grandkids to be mentally strong, it starts by building a healthy brain. Talk to your kids about their brains, love it, avoid things that hurt it, and engage in regular brain healthy habits, especially brain healthy food, exercise, targeted supplements, and sleep. Brain healthy food.

In the program materials, my wife Tana has a new Raising Mentally Strong Kids cookbook with many recipes kids can make. Exercise is a critical brain health habit, especially coordination exercises which stimulate the cerebellum in the back bottom part of the brain. The cerebellum has more than half of the brain’s neurons and it is important because it’s connected to all other parts of the brain. Exercises like tennis, table tennis, pickleball, or dancing are great for brain development.

Of course, if you drink while you are dancing or play beer pong, it completely ruins the benefits. I also recommend all of my patients, no matter what their age, take multiple vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and probiotics for gut health. My favorite supplement, the one I take every day besides these and give to my kids, is Saffron as it has been found to help mood, memory, and focus.

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