Parenting adolescents isn’t easy. This is especially true when it comes to keeping our kids away from alcohol and drugs. In 2016, the Monitoring the Future Survey reported that 3% of 8th graders, 10% of 10th graders and 16% of 12th graders admit to binge drinking. The survey noted that self-reported marijuana use was 9% of 8th graders, 24% of 10th graders and 36% of 12th graders.
Experimenting with substances has long been thought a rite of passage. For some, that’s all it is. For others, who have a predisposition to addiction, are experiencing a mental illness such as depression or anxiety, or who are using substances to bury their feelings, experimenting can become dangerous. In the United States, 13% to 20% of children experience a mental illness each year. Surveillance over the past two decades has shown the prevalence of these conditions to be increasing. The pressures of academic and athletic expectations, difficult family situations and even the general emotional hardships of puberty can precipitate anxiety and depression. Teens who have a genetic predisposition to addiction, and who experiment with substances in order to cope with trauma or discomfort, are more likely to have addiction issues throughout their lives. Even transient substance abuse can affect adolescent brain development and increase its potential for addiction in the long term.
Parental influence can be powerful when it comes to prevention. Studies show that fifty percent of teenage addiction can be prevented by parents communicating regularly with adolescents. If you find it difficult to get the conversation started, consider these tips for having open discussions about substance abuse and its consequences.
First get a feel for the lay of the land. Ask your children how they feel about the drinking or drug use they’ve observed and listen to them without judgement. Then, set clear house rules about alcohol and illicit drug use. Explain that the rules are in place to protect them and then enforce the rules you set. It helps to get to know the parents of your children’s friends. Ask them what their house rules are and share your own so they know what to expect from you and your child. The guidelines you create are personal and must fit within your family’s values, but some suggestions for rules may be:
- We expect to always know where you are, what you are doing, and with whom.
- We expect you to avoid parties at which alcohol is being served or drugs are being used. (Remind your child that even being at a party where others use alcohol or drugs can get him or her into trouble.)
- We don’t permit the under-age use of alcohol or drugs in our own home.
- Always have a plan to avoid dangerous situations such as riding in a car driven by someone who has been drinking or using drugs.
Some families find it helpful to create a pledge by which children agree that they will not use substances. Helping your child say “no” to peer pressure is also important to keeping him or her alcohol and drug free. Work with your child to think of a way to handle this situation, practicing responses and actions that feel comfortable and reasonable for them. Let them know that you are available to come to their rescue if they find themselves in a dangerous situation.
In addition to what we say, our children are observing what we do. Try to be a positive role model with your own use of alcohol, and don’t let your own past stop you from talking to your child about underage drinking. If you drank as a teenager, be honest. We didn’t know then what we know now about the effect of these substances. You may want to acknowledge that it was risky. You could even give your child an example of a painful moment that occurred because of your underage drinking. Make a distinction between adolescent and adult use. Explain to your child your reasons for drinking: whether it is to enhance a meal, share good times with friends, or celebrate a special occasion. Point out that if you choose to drink, it is always in moderation.
Finally, you will feel more confident about having conversations and laying ground rules if you learn about alcohol and drugs. Know the signs of substance abuse and mental illness and help your children get professional help if you are worried about their emotional wellbeing or if you think they are abusing alcohol or drugs. The biggest mistake we can make as parents is to think that addiction will never happen to our kids. It can happen to any family.