Experimentation with drugs and alcohol often starts — or peaks — during summer. Teenagers have more time on their hands, boredom sets in, and curiosity takes over. As parents, our own substance use may be more lax in the summer as well. And, because we trust our teenagers, especially if they’ve never given us any reason not to, we may have let down our parenting guard.
If your teenager’s summer activities included experimenting with drugs or alcohol, there’s a good likelihood this will continue during the school year. If your teenager is not experimenting with these substances yet, will this be the year he starts?
As parents, it’s our obligation to keep having “the talk.” Not just once or twice, but as part of an ongoing conversation with our teenagers about drugs and alcohol. As a mother of three (ages 26, 23 and 15), I’ve been through this drill — more than once. Let me share a few veteran tips about how to parent teens and drugs.
How to Approach Drug and Alcohol Use with Teens:
1. Think prevention-oriented parenting.
It’s our obligation to keep our teenagers safe from harm. We do this by educating and caring even when they don’t like it. It means knowing where they are and who they are with. It means setting boundaries, enforcing consequences. It means recognizing that teenagers will encounter choices about drugs and alcohol, telling your teenager that it concerns you, and be promising to help without judgment if your son or daughter is in a precarious place (i.e., a social setting).
2. There is no such thing as “Not my kid.”
One of the most dangerous beliefs that a parent can have is thinking that their kid is too smart to try drugs and alcohol, let alone become addicted. Naiveté and denial are dangerous.
3. Have “the talk” a lot.
Check in with your teenagers to see what they know and how they feel about substance use. Listen, don’t lecture. Check back from time to time to see if attitudes are changing about teens and drugs. If you have reason to believe that your teenager is using, ask about it in a non-judgmental way. Seek to understand why and share your concerns.
4. Be observant.
Keep an eye out, but don’t become an undercover investigator just yet. While it’s important to be aware of potential substance use, don’t go searching your teenager’s belongings or doling out punishment. Gather information before you make decisions about what to do.
5. If your gut tells you something isn’t right, take action.
Don’t wait and see if it goes away. Instead, check out what’s available in your community and consider a substance-use assessment with a professional who is a licensed alcohol and drug counselor.
6. Keep learning.
Today, we know a lot more about brain development and the dangers of teenage substance use — enough to know that drinking and getting high should not be a rite of passage for our teenagers. What’s more, the substance scene has changed a lot in recent years. Marijuana, for example, is far more potent and available in many more forms, including candy. Teenagers are using prescription medications — for ADD/ADHD, anxiety, and pain — to get high instead of for the intended medical purpose. Heroin is readily available and many young adults are smoking it instead of injecting it. In addition, there are all kinds of synthetic “designer” drugs, there are new names for old drugs, and there is vaping to worry about.
7. You are not alone.
If you are dealing with substance use, including alcohol, reach out to other parents who have been there, done that. There are support groups such as Al-anon and many online sources as well. Having a mix of parents and professionals can help you better navigate the challenges of teens and drugs than going it alone.
8. Take care of yourself.
When a teenager is misusing drugs and alcohol, it takes a toll on parents and siblings. Be careful not to let your teenager’s use consume you. Learn about enabling versus supporting and commit to self-care — we all know, “if Mama ain’t happy …” and this applies to Papa and siblings, too. Take care of yourself because your teenager needs you to have a clear, calm perspective to help her through the chaos that comes with youth substance misuse.
For most teenagers, thankfully, there is a huge gap between abstinence, experimentation, and addiction. Not every adolescent will try drugs and alcohol, and not every kid that does will end up with a substance-use disorder. Having been down this path before, there is only so much parents, teachers, coaches and other adults of influence can do. But do it, we must.