According to a recent survey on adolescent drug and alcohol use, more than 27% of teens reported using illicit drugs in the past month, and close to a quarter of 10th-graders and more than 37% of high school seniors drank alcohol.
The good news is that these numbers are down from previous years; the bad news is that they remain much too high. As parents, we want to do all we can to make sure our kids don’t become a sad statistic. Understanding what influences them can be a good strategy for minimizing their risk. Consider these factors:
- Their friends
Researchers have long known that a teen’s peers influence whether or not they do drugs or drink. But more recent research shows it’s not so much their peers as their immediate circle of friends that matters. Teens are much more likely to engage in risky behavior when those they like and know are doing so.
What to do: Because friends are so influential, it’s vital to keep tabs on your teen’s social set. Trying to pick their friends is guaranteed to backfire, but you can steer your child toward positive people and put reasonable limits on their hanging-out time. Encourage them toward activities that boost self-esteem (the type that’s created by spending the time and energy to master something), so they won’t have to rely on others for a sense of self-worth. Do all you can to create a community of people who know and care about your adolescent – family, friends, neighbors. Teens are less likely to follow their friends in taking risks if they know others are paying attention and wishing them well.
It may also help your child to know that trying to be one of the cool kids isn’t worth the effort. Research finds that valuing coolness can lead to more, and more extreme behaviors, including drug and alcohol use. By the time the teen is a young adult, the coolness has evaporated; they are not only more likely to have substance use issues, they’re perceived by their peers as less competent in all areas of their life, including socially.
- Poor coping skills
Lucky and rare is the teen who makes it through the high school years without ever feeling embarrassed, ignored or rejected by their peers. It’s part of growing up, we realize as adults. But when young, every incident can feel like the end of the world. If your teen hasn’t learned strategies for dealing with emotional pain, they may see drugs or alcohol as a way to dampen the distress.
What to do: It’s heartbreaking to see your child hurting, but we help them most if we teach them strategies for dealing with their feelings rather than attempting to remove every stone in their path. Help them develop an authentic sense of self-worth, teach them to stand up for themselves without stooping to retaliation, model kindness and ethical behavior and help them learn the priceless value of a sense of humor. If you suspect bullying, however, don’t hesitate to step in with school officials, but avoid face-to-face confrontations with the bully or his/her parents. (StopBullying.gov has helpful advice about how to proceed.)
- Mood disorders such as depression and anxiety
It’s not always clear which came first, but mood disorders are strongly correlated with substance use. In some cases, drugs and alcohol become a way of self-medicating the negative feelings. Other studies link substance abuse during depression to a trait called negative urgency – a tendency to act in reckless ways in reaction to stress.
What to do: It can be tempting to downplay signs of depression and anxiety as normal teen angst and trust that your child will eventually shake it off. But these issues should never be ignored; the risks, including teen suicide, are simply too great. Arrange for your child to have a thorough exam by their general practitioner. It can be a less threatening way to determine if mental health care is indicated. If it is, don’t delay in reaching out for professional help. The good news is that helping one condition can help the other.
- Lack of sleep
The days of tucking your child into bed may be over, but you shouldn’t stop paying attention to their sleep habits. A study that tracked thousands of adolescents into young adulthood found that sleep issues can predict later problems with drugs and alcohol. Those who had trouble sleeping or who simply didn’t get the recommended eight to 10 hours a night were more likely to binge drink, drive under the influence, use illicit drugs, have interpersonal problems due to their substance use and get into sexual situations they later regretted due to drinking.
What to do: Rest can be hard to impose on a teen, especially because circadian rhythms change during adolescence, meaning many find it hard to fall asleep until 11 p.m. or later. An earlier bedtime, thus, may be pointless, so do what you can to shift your child’s schedule to capture those valuable morning hours. That might mean joining in with the American Academy of Pediatrics, which in 2014 called for later school start times for teens. If your son or daughter struggles with insomnia, reach out to a doctor or a sleep specialist for help.
- Their brain
Teens and risky behavior go together. It’s the way they’re wired, as more research reveals. A recent study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, for example, found that the adolescent brain is much more developed than once believed, but that it’s easily overruled by heightened motivation centers that push the teen to seek sensations and immediate gratification. That spells trouble if the sensations and gratification take the form of drugs and alcohol.
What to do: You can’t do much to change the developing brain, but you can help your child find healthy ways to satisfy their natural craving for adrenalin and reward so they won’t feel tempted to fill the void with substances. Work with them to discover what appeals to them. Some ideas: a youth improv group, rock climbing, involvement in a sports league, music lessons, a video game production workshop, community theater. With a little searching, you should be able to connect your son or daughter with something that sparks a passion and leaves little time or desire for less-positive temptations. And clue them in to the reality of their developing brain. The next time they’re on the verge of a bad decision, the knowledge just may help them realize, “This isn’t really a good idea. It’s just my brain telling me it is.”
- Your silence
Research reveals that close to one-quarter of parents believe that nothing they say will stop their teen from using drugs or alcohol. National surveys of teens, however, show that mindset is dead wrong. Teens who believe their parents would strongly disapprove of substance use are much less likely to use drugs or alcohol.
What to do: Don’t underestimate the power you have in influencing your child. Start the conversation about substance use early and keep the comments coming. One thing to keep in mind: You’ll be more effective if you make the conversation a two-way street rather than a preaching session. Ask your child about the drug and alcohol culture in their school, the things they’ve seen, the temptations the student body faces. You may be amazed at what they’re willing to share if you put the spotlight on the issue rather than on them. You’ll then be in a better position to assess their risks and focus your advice.
- Your war stories
It may seem that opening up about your own adolescent drug or alcohol use is a way to bridge the gap when having anti-drug conversations with your kids. But sharing your stories can backfire, leading kids to show less anti-drug sentiment, according to a 2013 study.
What to do: Don’t feel you’re somehow not being honest if you don’t lay your whole history bare when talking to your child about drugs and alcohol. This doesn’t mean you have to lie if put on the spot about your past, but keep your comments brief. The focus should be that past mistakes can’t be changed, but future ones can be avoided.