Imagine This Scenario…
I’m sitting down with frantic parents who have just discovered their teen has smoked pot. These parents are also convinced their son has drunk alcohol, but they don’t know for sure.
It’s not easy for parents to know how to address alcohol and drug use with their children. How do parents hit that sweet spot where they don’t minimize or deny problems but also don’t automatically go into crisis mode and lose perspective? So how does a parent go about tackling the topic of drugs and alcohol in an informed, a proactive, and preventative manner?
What are the patterns and trends with today’s youth? For many parents, the data may be surprising. Did you know that alcohol use has been steadily declining among high school teens? The decline in alcohol use includes drops in binge-drinking and in getting behind the wheel after alcohol consumption. There has also been a steady decline in the use of most “hard drugs,” including forms of cocaine, inhalants, methamphetamines, and hallucinogens.
That’s the good news. Some of the more alarming trends among today’s youth are:
- Age of First Use. The average starting age for drinking amongst 12-17 year-olds who report having consumed alcohol is age 11 for boys and age 13 for girls.
- Changing Perception Around Marijuana Use. The changing political and cultural discussion around marijuana use has forced parents to now give considerably more attention to it. Fewer students see the drug as risky despite the risk of permanent effects on memory, learning and intelligence if used regularly by the young.
- Heroin and Prescription Pain Pill Use. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the majority of overdose deaths (6 out of 10) involve opioids.
What’s so Special About the Teen Years?
The factors that raise the risk of substance use during the teen years are:
- Brain development and hormonal changes associated with puberty
- Hormonal changes
- Access and availability to substances
- Autonomy and independence
Drug and alcohol abuse can cause alterations in the structure and functioning of the developing brain, which is still maturing into a person’s mid-twenties. Adding mood altering substances can also rewire how the brain experiences emotions like fear, depression, pleasure, and pain. A teen’s memory can also be drastically altered by the effects of alcohol and drug use.
What Are My Kid’s Risk Factors?
Genetic Risk Factors
Parents should be especially aware that the following factors significantly increase the risk of drug and alcohol use for your children:
- Family history of substance abuse or addiction increases the genetic vulnerability
- Family history of excessive use increases availability, exposure to, and normalization of problematic use.
- A history of mental health problems can increase risk for use.
- Early childhood abuse or trauma can also increase vulnerability to use.
Social/Developmental Risk Factors
Generalized risk factors that predict problems in life, including, but not limited to drug and alcohol use, should also be evaluated. General risk factors include:
- Exhibit behavioral problems early in age, especially antisocial problems where the rights of others are violated.
- Academic struggles and underperformance or underachievement
- Difficulty with socialization, including few friends, social isolation, poor social skills, or peer group that exhibit risk factors, including drug use.
Risks Factors Associated w/ Use
Substance use-specific risk factors re the variables to monitor after someone has experimented or used drugs/alcohol. They include:
- Age of first use. Teens who start drinking on a regular basis before age fifteen have five times the risk of developing alcohol abuse or addiction later in life than those who start drinking regularly after the legal age of twenty-one.
- Frequency of use. Has your child tried alcohol or marijuana once or twice, or has there been a prolonged period of regular use?
- Use to achieve intoxication.
- The drug of choice and method of administration. Drugs such as heroin or prescription pain pills, are considered hard drugs and have higher risk for addiction at an accelerated rate. The method of administrating the drug is also a factor.
Communicate Early, Communicate Often
More than one in five parents of teens believe what they say has little influence on whether their child will use drugs or alcohol; however, teens who believe their parents would strongly disapprove of them using substances are less likely to do so. Strong parental disapproval of substance use is still the most significant influence on teen’s behavior. Teens report their parents’ beliefs around drugs and alcohol have the most influence on their choices.
Here are a few tips to guide your conversations with your child.
- Validate well – Affirm their personal track record of mature, responsible, and positives choices in specific areas of their life.
- Selectively speak – The more you speak, and the longer you speak, the less your kid will listen. What are the few crucial points you want them to remember?
- Give just as much attention to listening to what your teen has to say.
- Bonus: Do not immediately jump in and correct the first time your child says something you object to.
- Be open about any family history of substance abuse and addiction.
Model Healthy Attitudes and Behaviors Within the Family
The more a young person is around excessive drinking or drug use, the more they receive the message that it is normal behavior, thus increasing the risk they will engage in the same behavior down the road. Kids are more prone to excessive drink or experiment with drugs when they believe their parents will not strongly object. Many kids come to that conclusion from what they’ve already observed from their family life.
Clear Expectations with Clear Enforcement, Incentives, and Consequences
What will you do if your child gets caught using drugs or alcohol? Do they have any insight on how you would respond or what would happen? The more your kid knows what she is putting at risk, the better they will develop the ability to make informed choices and can reason with herself about whether or not their desire or curiosity is worth what she is putting at risk.
Turn consequences into incentives. Often, they are the same thing, just different sides of the coin. An example, you might say she will have access to use the family vehicle (or your own car) as long as she does not engage in alcohol or drug use. It is the same as a consequence (you will lose your driving privilege if you get caught using alcohol/drugs), but framed it in a positive way.
If you find yourself in a place of confusion and uncertainty, reach out for help and support. Some additional options for help include:
- Having parents meet with a licensed mental health professional who specializes in substance-related problems with teens.
- Have your child meet with a professional to discuss the situation and his use or suspected use.
- Having both parents and kids can meet with a professional and have someone guide the conversation between parents and child.
Teachable Moment For Both Parents and Teen
Teens can learn from past mistakes and correct them. Teens can choose not to engage in dangerous drug use. It’s scary as a parent to know that teens will have access to alcohol and likely drugs as well. It’s worrisome to know that they’ll likely have ample opportunity to use and experiment with them. But some will choose not to use alcohol or drugs. And some will learn from their experimentation and curiosity that alcohol and drugs are not worth the risk and worry.
For More Information
For more information concerning teen addiction and substance abuse, click on the following links:
- National Survey on American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens
- National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XV: Teens and Parents
- Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings