Defusing the “Benadryl challenge”: Discussing danger with teens – Harvard Health Blog
Let’s start with the basics: Parents of teens need to help them understand that just because they’ve been “challenged” to do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. But as simple as it sounds to us, it’s hard for many teenagers to understand.
The latest challenge in the news is the “Benadryl Challenge” which appeared on TikTok, a popular social media video platform. The idea was to take a whole bunch of Benadryl (diphenhydramine, a common antihistamine) in order to get a high, with hallucinations. While it is true that diphenhydramine can make you high and hallucinate, when you take too much you can also have seizures, pass out, have heart problems, or even die. And indeed, emergency rooms across the country have dealt with diphenhydramine overdoses, and at least one death has been attributed to this challenge.
Dangerous challenges appeal to teens
To TikTok’s credit, they say they’ve taken down the videos and are monitoring new ones. When I searched the site myself, nothing happened when I searched for “Benadryl”. But it’s not like it’s the only social media challenge. We’ve had the Cinnamon Challenge, the Nutmeg Challenge, and others like the “Kiki Challenge” where people get out of their slow cars and dance alongside them, or the “Skullbreaker Challenge” which , well, speaks for itself. Getting rid of all the challenges is not really possible; it’s a whack-a-mole game.
The reason why teens do this stuff is actually rooted in evolutionary biology. The brains of adolescents and young adults are growing and changing rapidly to meet the needs of their particular time in life. As adolescents enter adulthood and become independent, they need to be able to learn a lot of information quickly. Their brains are set up to help them do this.
Coming into adulthood and becoming independent also requires being courageous and taking risks. There are so many new and scary things when you step into adulthood, which is why a lot of us are happy to have passed this part of life. This is also taken into account by adolescent brain development: the last part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex, the part that helps us control our impulses and avoid risks. By the mid-twenties, the process is complete.
Working with the adolescent brain
This doesn’t mean that parents, teachers, and others should just give up and stop trying to talk to teens about making safer decisions. We absolutely have to keep trying, day after day. But it does mean we need to understand why these challenges can be so appealing, and why teens may not fully appreciate the risks. This means that our efforts must be not only continuous, but comprehensive. We have to work with the teenager’s brain, not against him.
There is no easy way to do it. But here are some ideas:
- Listen as much as you talk. To ask questions. The more you understand their behavior, the more likely you are to find strategies that work.
- Don’t jump to judgment. Besides being wired to make impulsive and sometimes dangerous decisions, if teens feel judged, they’re less likely to listen to everything you have to say.
- Try to encourage your teen to come up with ideas for staying safe. Not only do they know each other better than you and their peers, but they may be more invested in an idea that they themselves invented.
- Ask for help. Teens don’t always listen to parents, but they can listen to other adults in their lives. And certainly, if you feel your child is doing things that are dangerous and you can’t stop them, talk to your doctor.
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