For many parents, there is a sense of relief once your child hits adolescence. They days of diapers and night feedings are over. Your child is more independent, and dare I say, even helpful! The intensive supervision and caregiving necessary when raising a child gives way to a period of stepping back and giving your teen the time and space to figure out who they are and who they want to be.
However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Adolescence is also a time of discovery and experimentation that doesn’t always lead to positive results. For some teens, experimentation and newfound independence can lead down the path of drug and alcohol use. In fact, according to recent statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 32% of eight graders report drinking alcohol in the past year, while 16% have consumed it within the past month. On top of that, the majority of teens that drink also report binge drinking (5 or more drinks in a sitting for boys and 4 or more for girls).
Risks of Alcohol Use Among Teens
Consuming alcohol as a teen can lead to significant life-changing consequences. A person who begins drinking as a teen is four times more likely to abuse alcohol as an adult. In addition, teens who use alcohol are more likely to experience difficulties in school, be a victim of violent crime (including sexual assault), be involved in an alcohol-related automobile accident, or partake in risky sexual behaviors. Teens that use alcohol are also at higher risk for abusing other drugs, including marijuana or prescription drugs.
In addition, alcohol abuse, especially among youth, can have harmful effects on the body. Some side effects that are important to be aware of are:
- Memory loss
- Difficulties with attention and concentration
- Damage to the heart and central nervous system
- Increased risk of cirrhosis or liver cancer in the future
- Vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition
- Damage to the stomach
- Long-term changes to the developing brain
- Impaired judgment and decision-making
- Suicidal ideation
- Learning difficulties
- Alcohol poisoning and death
While your child may turn to alcohol as a way to cope with stress or to fit in with peers, the risks of doing so are significant. Therefore, it is important that as parents, we do what we can to help keep our teens away from drugs and alcohol. The following are ways to help prevent alcohol and drug use in teenagers.
Talking with Your Child About Alcohol and Drugs
Many people feel like talking about drugs or alcohol will put ideas in your teen’s head. In fact, nothing can be further from the truth. Your teen is likely already hearing about drugs and alcohol from friends, social media, or television. The messages they may be receiving, however, might be inaccurate or dangerous.
It is important to be honest with your child. Nothing will shut down a discussion with a teen faster than tossing a large amount of sensationalized stories at them aimed at conjuring up fear. Many teens want to be respected and treated like an independent near-adult, so providing them with accurate information, without overloading them with too much, is likely to be far more effective. If you use too much hyperbole and exaggeration, chances are your teen will begin tuning you out and dismissing what you are saying.
Teens often tend to be hesitant to sit through a long conversation about big topics like sex or drug use. They also tend to need frequent reminders that are connected to situations that are meaningful to them so that they can begin to internalize the message. Instead of sitting down with your 12-year-old and having a lengthy talk about the harms of drugs and alcohol, mention drug or alcohol use frequently. If you and your child are watching television and the plot line discusses alcoholism, use that opportunity to talk with your child and get their thoughts on the scene. If there is a news story about a drunk driving accident, mention to your child ways that the accident could have been prevented.
Have Open Communication
Unfortunately, in many families, the lines of communication between teens and parents are not always open. Teenagers often feel like they are not being heard or taken seriously. It is important that teens feel that they can talk to their parents about anything, including drug and alcohol use. Frequently remind your child that you are there if they need to talk about anything and then be willing to actually listen.
This is as important to do with small issues, like a child’s bad grade on a test or fight with a best friend, as it is with big issues. After all, if a teen feels judged or unheard with regards to small issues, it will be difficult to get them to talk about the bigger issues.
Address Mental Health Issues
Mental illness can be a significant issue during adolescence. In fact, 20% of teens are living with mental illness and 75% of all mental illnesses develop before the age of 24. Add to it, at least 20% of those with mental illness develop a substance use disorder and you can easily see why addressing mental health issues is an important factor in preventing adolescent substance abuse.
Major depressive disorder (clinical depression) and anxiety disorders are common in adolescents, although more severe mental illness, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, can also develop during the teen years, as can suicidal ideation. Recent research from the Child Mind Institute shows that over half of children and teens with untreated mental illness develop a substance use disorder.It is important to check in with your teen frequently and ask about their mental health. If you see signs that are worrying to you, or if they mention anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts, it is important to seek professional help.
Setting Boundaries in Your Home
Most children and teens want to make the right decisions, but murky boundaries or unrealistic and unclear expectations can make it difficult. As your child grows and becomes more independent, he or she will want more freedom and responsibility, so clear boundaries can help them understand your expectations.
Every family has a different set of values and rules, so the boundaries you set have to be right for your family, regardless of the rules and boundaries other families might have set. For example, in some families, teens are permitted to drink wine during meals. If you do not want your child consuming alcohol as a minor, you need to set a clear boundary that alcohol will not be served to any minor in your home, even on special occassions.
With boundaries come consequences for when those boundaries are crossed. It is important to involve your teen in creating these consequences so that they are meaningful and teach lessons, rather than simply being punitive. Also, remember to acknowledge when your teen respects the boundaries and makes safe decisions. After all, children and teens that only receive attention for bad behavior often continue to act out to receive that attention. Let your teen know that you see that he or she has been working hard to respect the rules and that in turn has helped you to trust that your teen can handle more freedom.
What to do if you Suspect Your Child is Drinking or Using Drugs
If you suspect or know that your child is using drugs or alcohol, first of all, don’t panic. Keep your emotions in check and help create a learning opportunity for your child on the consequences of drug or alcohol use.
If you catch your teen intoxicated, first make sure that they are physically safe. Talking with them won’t work until they have sobered up, but they do need to be safe from the physical consequences of intoxication.
Once they are sober, sit down and have an open conversation with them, remembering to actively listen to your teen. It is important to find out if your child was experiencing any pressure or mental health issues that you might not have been aware of, in addition to finding out if there were any risky situations involved, such as unprotected sex or assault.
During this conversation, you can use the information you learn as a way to teach them how to protect themselves and make better decisions in the future.
Finally, if your child has a drug or alcohol problem, it is important to find a rehab program that specializes in treating youth. This is the best way to help them recover and to get their lives back on track before they experience more serious consequences.
While drug and alcohol abuse isn’t something any parent wants to think about, having open and honest communication with your teen, addressing any mental health or current substance abuse issues, and setting clear and realistic boundaries can help keep your child safe from the pressures of drug and alcohol use during their teen years.