Talking About Drug Use with Your Adolescent
Substance use is up to the teenager, but parents should inform that choice.
Posted April 1, 2019 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Some parents would like to give in to that enemy in hiding—denial—and turn a blind eye to the possibility of psychoactive (mood and mind-altering) substance use in their teenager’s life. However, I believe it best to admit that it's a drug-filled world in which today’s adolescents are growing up and so merits continual vigilance and discussion.
What follows are some thoughts about this unwelcome topic: the reality that exists, the risks to beware, the precautions to advise should use begin, and when parents might consider seeking help.
If not before, recreational drug use commonly starts coming into play by the high school years when curiosity becomes more pressing, excitement becomes more alluring, and social partying becomes more frequent. The three introductory substances are usually nicotine (which can be a stimulant) and alcohol (which can be a depressant) and marijuana (which can be a hallucinogen.) By graduation, not every student has tried all of these substances, but most young people have experimented with some.
While word of mouth is sufficient to extol the cool use of nicotine and marijuana; persuasive advertising may additionally encourage the youthful use of alcohol by portraying drinking as a socially desirable, good fellowship, more grown-up thing to do. Continued use of these introductory drugs can sometimes lead to an interest in trying psychoactive others as the young person grows.
Should parents discover that their teenager has had an episode of substance use, they need to take note, paying more careful attention to the day to day life choices their son or daughter is making—as when a careful teenager starts acting carelessly or when a responsibly engaged teenager becomes more interested in escape activities or when a truthful teenager starts more lying. Uncharacteristic, atypical decisions that create trouble become worthy of further notice. In many cases, a young person who claims first-time use has actually used before, just as a young person who has started using (despite promises to the contrary) is more likely to do so again.
Parental admission of likely exposure and experimentation does not constitute permission to use; it only declares the necessity for initiating some discussion. In response to their wanting to talk about this topic, parents might be told that they worry too much. “It’s everywhere. Everyone knows it. Everyone does it. So what?”
Parents can explain their concern by suggesting how substance use can affect decision-making that in the extreme can lead to serious consequences. In fact, there are risks worth worrying and talking about.
At worst can be eight endangering risks from youthful substance use that can damage or even destroy an adolescent’s life.
- Social violence
- Accidental injury
- School failure
- Illegal activities
- Sexual misadventures
- Suicidal despondency
- Dangerous risk-taking
- Overdose complications
Substance use can increase the likelihood that such eventualities might occur. So parents might declare: “Such risks are why you do not have our blessing to use. This is why we believe the safest path through adolescence is substance-free. And this is why we also need to talk about safety precautions should you choose to use.”
Obviously, every parent has to decide what to say to their younger and older adolescent about alcohol and other drug use, but it is not responsible to say nothing. Substance use, like Internet use, is a hazardous fact of contemporary life about which to talk to your adolescent honestly, openly, and continually.
What might parents want to say to their teenager about substance use? Here are a few suggestions to consider.
- Understand that any drug is just a poison with a purpose, always risky because intended good effects can have unintended negative side effects.
- Everybody responds to the same drug somewhat differently. Don’t ignore a bad use experience; learn from it.
- Make the decision to use intentional, not automatic. Don’t make use a regular habit because that can engender dependency.
- Make use a free personal choice, not a socially pressured choice. Don’t let others determine your decision to use.
- Use in the company of friends. Don’t use with people you don’t know and trust.
- Use because you want to, not because you need to. Don’t let emotions drive your use.
- Since the danger of the substance is partly in the dose, when using a substance start low and go slow. Don’t use so fast you lose track of use or use in excess.
- When using, go at your own rate. Don’t use to keep up with, show off, or compete with how other people are using.
- Know why you are using. If you believe it is the only way to relax or cope with a demanding situation, consider exploring some other ways.
- Know what you are using. Don’t use when unsure about the nature of the substance being offered—what it is, what it’s mixed with, what it interacts with.
- Stick to single substance use. Don’t mix multiple psychoactive substances when you use, and if already taking prescription psychoactive medication like a stimulant or depressant, don’t socially use.
- Use for enjoyment, not to medicate discomfort. Don’t use to fortify resolve or escape from unhappiness.
- Use so that choices made when using are pleasing when looked back upon. Don’t keep using if they are a source of regret or remorse.
- The longer you delay using until you are older, the less likely you will become a problem user. Don’t feel you have to use to be “grown-up.”
- Curfew your use. Don’t use after midnight when all kinds of social risks start to rise.
- After use, evaluate your use. Don’t ignore wise and unwise decisions made when using because both have something valuable to teach.
- Learn from watching others. Don’t ignore how some people use and get in trouble because that example can caution you against problem use.
- Use proactively. Don’t begin use without a plan for how and how much you intend to use; then stick to what you proposed.
- Always contact us if you ever get in trouble using substances. We are only a phone call away.
If your adolescent is engaging in self-defeating, self-endangering, self-destructive, or socially harmful behavior and you have evidence of substance use going on, that is a time to seek drug-wise professional help. Maybe your young person is okay, but maybe not. When in doubt; check it out.
If a teenager is caught in a chemical dependency she or he is unable to break, assisted abstinence programs, 12-step programs, can be invaluable support for sober living, while in- or out-patient treatment programs can provide self-management understanding and education so one hopefully can start living substance-free.
In any case, the interaction of adolescence and psychoactive substances has too much at stake to ignore this essential topic for discussion. To help your teenager stay on the safe side of drug use, keep communicating with each other about it.
Finally, parents often ponder the wisdom of sharing their own youthful or adult drug use history which, however cautionary, they fear might encourage imitation. "Well you did, so why shouldn't I!" So parents decide to shut up about their experience. What follows is a personal vote to speak up.
One early morning, somewhere in my mid-adolescence (age 13-15), I was awakened by my mother sitting down upon my bed, looking very serious. "Carl, I have something important to tell you." That caught my attention: Was she dangerously ill? This is what she had to say:
"Last night I was at a party in Boston, and after having too much to drink, I drove unsteadily home only to be pulled over by a police officer for erratically weaving all over the road. Still, under the influence of alcohol, I immediately lost my temper. 'How dare you stop me? I'll have your badge!' I exploded. Three hours later, after having paid a fine, I took a taxi home because now my license to drive had been suspended for six months. I'm telling you this in the hopes you might learn from my bad example."
Now I certainly did some impulsive and unwise things in adolescence, but thanks to my mother sharing her arresting experience with me, drinking alcohol and driving were not among them.
Next week’s entry: The Power of Parental Listening to Their Adolescent