Parents will do almost anything to keep their children safe, but communicating with youth becomes more challenging as they get older. That’s why you should talk to your children about alcohol and other drugs early. It’s a conversation that you need to have because drugs can ruin your child’s life.
Every year, millions of teens try alcohol, marijuana or tobacco products for the first time. Most of them won’t get caught. They won’t get in a car accident, and they won’t become addicted. But a significant portion of them will, and the consequences can be devastating.
You can keep your children from becoming a statistic by being involved in their lives, having honest conversations with them and practicing what you preach.
Some parents, despite their best efforts, will have a child who develops a substance use disorder. That doesn’t mean the parent or child has failed. Helping a child recover from addiction is just one of the many challenges parents might face.
As kids get older, they often start to question the life lessons they hear from parents and teachers. They become more heavily influenced by the things they see on TV, the internet and social media. Teens listen to what their peers say, and they pay attention to what celebrity role models do. As a result, they get mixed messages, and they have to determine which information to believe.
Anti-drug messages such as “just say no” aren’t effective. Teens need concrete reasons to avoid alcohol and other drugs. They need facts and evidence. Parents have to know what they’re talking about if they want their children to listen.
The most popular drugs that teens use haven’t changed much for the past five decades. Alcohol, marijuana and tobacco consistently rank among the top substances of abuse among youth. But other perils have become popular in recent years. The packaging and advertisements for alcoholic energy drinks, electronic cigarettes and synthetic marijuana are designed to appeal to teens.
The abuse of medications such as cough syrups, anti-anxiety drugs, ADHD medications and prescription pain relievers is less common, but the side effects can be life threatening. Less than one percent of teens use heroin, crystal meth or cocaine regularly.
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The percent of high school seniors who tried cigarettes has declined each year since 1998, and it reached an all-time low in 2016. Electronic vaporizers also declined in popularity between 2015 and 2016, the only two years that teens were asked about their use of the products.
Most teens do not develop a substance use disorder after using drugs, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t vulnerable to a number of other risks. The side effects of various drugs differ.
Addiction is the one risk that each drug has in common. Some drugs are more addictive than others, but with repeated use, teens can become addicted to any drug.
The teenage brain is wired to be curious and seek news experiences. It’s in a constant state of development, meaning it adapts to addictive substances more quickly than an adult brain.
Teen brains also have a mature reward system. They feel pleasure and pain in ways similar to adults, but the decision-making areas of the brain are immature. Thus, teens are more likely to act on impulse or emotions and less likely to fully assess situations.
The reward system works by releasing a small amount of a chemical called dopamine in the brain. Dopamine makes us feel happy. It’s naturally released to reward basic behaviors necessary to survival such as eating, exercising or having sex. Other behaviors that teens find pleasurable, such as playing sports, listening to music or socializing, cause small dopamine releases.
Each drug affects the brain in a different way, but all drugs overload the reward system with dopamine. The brain associates drug use with this positive reward, which causes teens to want to repeat the behavior. When teens use drugs regularly, the brain repeatedly adapts to the presence of the drugs and associates it with positive rewards.
Some people are genetically more vulnerable to this adaptation than others. They’re at a risk for developing an addiction. In those teens, the brain associates drug use with such positive rewards that the dopamine release caused by other activities no longer causes happiness. Drug use becomes a top priority for the brain, and the parts of the brain in charge of self-control can no longer keep the reward system in check.
Teens try alcohol or other drugs for a number of reasons that are influenced by several factors.
Risk factors for addiction include:
One risk factor alone may not be enough to spur teen drug use, but a combination of several factors increases the chances that a teen will try alcohol or other drugs. Protective factors such as anti-drug messages in the community, extracurricular drug testing in school and positive parental influence can negate risk factors.
Teens use alcohol or other drugs for a number of reasons. They usually try addictive substances for the first time because of peer pressure or their own curiosity.
Reasons for teen drug use drugs include:
Teens who drink alcohol or use drugs have few barriers to prevent them. They aren’t afraid of getting caught, and they have little trouble finding substances of abuse.
It’s easy for teens to access alcohol and other drugs. They can buy drugs at school or buy alcohol, cigarettes or synthetic marijuana from gas stations with fake IDs. Drinking and drug use is common at parties. If parents aren’t diligent, teens can steal prescription drugs from medicine cabinets or buy drugs on the internet and have them delivered in discreet packages.
Even if you monitor who your child hangs out with, most teens know a friend of a friend who can access illicit drugs or get them alcohol. They may work with young adults who are willing to buy alcohol, tobacco products or e-cigarettes for them.
Youth are also exposed to alcohol and other drugs on social media. A 2012 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that nearly half of teens surveyed said they’d seen teens drinking or using drugs on social media and that it seemed like they were having a good time.
Seventy-five percent of teens reported that seeing other teens drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana on social media sites encouraged other students to want to use them to have fun.
Despite their best efforts, educators can’t control everything that students bring on and off school property. It isn’t just one or two bad apples selling drugs, though. You may be surprised at how prevalent drug trafficking is on school grounds.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse study found:
When students were asked what drugs they could buy at school:
The school day isn’t the only time students have access to addictive substances. Many parents underestimate what happens when their children attend parties.
A 2006 survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that a third of teens and nearly half of 17-year-olds have attended a house party chaperoned by parents where teens drank alcohol or used other drugs.
Compared with teens who always attended parties with parents, teens who attended parties without parental supervision were:
The difference between parental perceptions of parties and teen reports was dramatic:
Numerous studies show that when parents allow their teens to drink a few sips of alcohol or allow them to drink at home, the children are more likely to drink outside of the home.
Several states have legalized marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes. Research isn’t clear on how medicinal marijuana legalization affects teens. In Colorado and Washington, states that have legalized recreational marijuana, youth marijuana consumption increased gradually between 2011 and 2014.
Nationally, the states that have legalized medicinal or recreational marijuana have the highest youth marijuana consumption rates. But in most cases, the states had led other states in marijuana consumption rates before legalization.
Nationally, teen marijuana consumption rates grew to a five-year high in 2015. Teen perceptions of the risks associated with marijuana have also weakened considerably. More teens perceive no great risk from smoking marijuana today than ever before.
Parents have a profound impact on a child’s decision to try alcohol or other drugs, but relationships between parents and their children are often delicate. You have to be involved in their lives, but avoid being a helicopter parent who is smothering or overprotective.
Eventually, teens have to make choices for themselves. If parents lend appropriate advice and act as positive role models, they can influence the choices their children make.
Most parents believe they don’t have a strong influence on their children, but research doesn’t back that up. You’re probably the most influential person in your child’s life.
“All the time, high school students tell us that the main reason their peers don’t drink or use drugs is because parents would disapprove,” said Emily Feinstein, the director of health law and policy at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
Teens highly value the respect of their parents even though many of them don’t want to admit it. There are a variety of ways parents can help prevent their children from trying drugs.
One of the most important ways parents influence their children is by being positive role models. Teens mimic what they see. That means parents should keep alcohol and other drugs away from the home. If you drink in front of your children, do so in moderation and explain why it’s important for kids to abstain from alcohol until their brains are fully developed.
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Many children don’t like being told what to do. They also dislike being lectured. When you communicate with teens, make sure you give them input in the conversation. Ask them what their views on drugs are and listen to their questions.
Get started at a young age so your children are used to having the conversation with you. A 2014 survey found that 42 percent of teens whose parents believed underage drinking was somewhat unacceptable or completely acceptable admitted to drinking. Comparatively, 8 percent of teens whose parents were against underage drinking said they had tried alcohol.
Don’t treat teenagers like they’re children, and don’t overwhelm young children with too many facts about drug abuse. It can be difficult to know how to talk to youth. Here are some tips.
Make sure you build an environment of trust and open communication. Don’t use scare tactics or make exaggerated claims. Stick to the facts.
When you talk about the dangers of alcohol and other drugs, emphasize the negative side effects that can result from substance abuse. Examples include decreased physical ability in sports, lost driving privileges, damage to overall health and negative effects on their appearance.
Talk to your teens about other influences on their attitudes about drugs. Think about how the media portrays drugs on television or in music. Be aware of your child’s sources of entertainment, including websites and apps. Your children may be exposed to drugs by the pages they like on Facebook, the people they follow on Twitter and Instagram, or the videos they watch on YouTube.
Be prepared for them to ask about your own drug use and determine how you will respond. Some studies show teens who know of a parent’s past drug use are more likely to have weak anti-drug attitudes. If you do share your experience, make sure you explain why you stopped and the negative consequences of your actions.
Some children experiment with drugs despite their parents’ best efforts. Thousands of adolescents consume alcohol or other drugs every day. While many are capable of trying drugs once and walking away, others succumb to addiction.
As a parent, you need to be aware of the signs or symptoms of drug abuse. If you recognize warning signs, you need to act quickly and strongly. The longer someone uses alcohol or other drugs, the higher the risk they face for negative consequences and the harder it is for them to stop.
Physical signs of teen drug abuse include:
Behavioral signs of teen drug abuse include:
If you notice any worrisome changes in your child’s appearance or behavior, initiate a conversation about drug use immediately. Don’t wait for your teen to become addicted before you seek assistance.
Drug abuse and mental health disorders commonly coincide. An estimated two-thirds of adolescents who abuse drugs also suffer from at least one mental health problem. That puts them at a much higher risk for addiction than other teens.
Co-occurring disorders include:
Like adults, teens who suffer from mental health problems are more likely turn to alcohol or other drugs to self-medicate to alleviate the symptoms of their mental health condition.
More children are diagnosed with ADHD today than ever before. The number of youth diagnosed with ADHD grew by about 3 percent each year from 1997 to 2006 and by about 5 percent per year from 2003 to 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Doctors often prescribe stimulant medications that contain amphetamines to children with ADHD. Research indicates that children may become dependent on these drugs over time, but not addicted. Illicit drugs such as cocaine and crystal meth have similar effects on teens with ADHD as these medications, so parents need to explain why prescription medications are preferable as their teens get older.
Bullying online and in person can have a number of damaging effects on youth. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that cyberbullying increased the chances of a teen developing depression. In addition, teens who used drugs were more likely to be victims of violence and bullying.
Parents whose children are suffering from depression caused by bullying or any other catalyst should make sure they don’t turn to alcohol or other drugs to feel better. Teens may find temporary relief from unhappy feelings by drinking or using drugs, but the substances worsen symptoms of depression over time.
Many adults save medications from a doctor’s prescription so they can save money if they need them again. Parents may have been prescribed anti-anxiety drugs to treat sleep problems or to relieve anxious feelings, or they may have prescription painkillers left over from a surgery. It may seem to make sense to give them to your children if they get injured or feel anxiety before a big event, but that can be incredibly risky.
Adult dosages are different from teen dosages, and simply cutting a pill in half doesn’t ensure you are giving your children a safe amount. Exposing them to prescription drugs without a doctor’s prescription teaches them that it’s OK to obtain them on their own. Always seek medical advice before allowing your child to take a prescription medication, and make sure to dispose of unused medications once they’re no longer needed.
If you recognize warning signs for substance abuse or addiction, it’s important to confront your children as soon as possible. Try to have a safe discussion, and determine how often they use drugs. If you believe it was a one-time occurrence, enforce consequences and reinforce the message that drinking or using drugs is dangerous.
If you aren’t sure it won’t happen again, or if you suspect that they’ve repeatedly used drugs, it’s important to seek medical advice. Take your teen to the doctor or a therapist for an evaluation. He or she may recommend further visits or outpatient therapy for minor substance abuse problems. Moderate or severe substance use disorders often require inpatient therapy and long-term treatment.
It’s important to prepare before approaching your child about alcohol or other drug use. You want to show that you’re concerned for his or her well-being, but you also will not tolerate them breaking house rules.
The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids recommends that parents wait to start the conversation if:
Get on the same page with your spouse or partner, and set a goal for the conversation. Examples of goals include setting a curfew, coming to agreement about not hanging out with certain friends, and seeking advice from a doctor.
Your children might get upset if you go through their things or accuse them of something that you’ve done yourself. They may even accuse you of lying. It’s important to stay calm. Explain that you love them and you only want what is best for them. Let them know you want to make a decision that’s best for their health. That may include grounding them or forcing them to see a doctor for an assessment.
Motivating teens to seek and participate in treatment usually leads to better treatment outcomes. As a parent, you can force your children to go to rehab. But you should try to convince them to go willingly first. Sometimes formal interventions are the best way to convince them they need professional assistance.
Interventions do not have to be dramatic or confrontational like the interventions seen on TV. Research indicates that compassionate interventions may be more effective than dramatic ones. Interventions should be calm, carefully planned conversations. The goal is to get the teenager to agree to visit a doctor or addiction specialist.
If you’re considering having a formal intervention, you should reach out to a certified interventionist. Make sure they’re accredited by a reputable organization such as the Network of Independent Interventionists or the Association of Intervention Specialists.
Parents should learn as much as they can about a treatment center before sending their teen there for treatment. Search for a center that specializes in teen treatment such as the Next Generation Village in Sebring, Florida. Make sure the center treats co-occurring disorders if your child has other mental health issues. Ensure that treatment is comprehensive and sets them up for success after they leave the facility.
Work with a therapist, doctor or addiction specialist to determine if inpatient or outpatient treatment is best for your child. During outpatient treatment, teens may be able to continue to attend school while attending therapy three to five days per week.
More severe addictions require inpatient treatment, but some facilities employ tutors to help teens keep up with school work. Talk to your health care provider about the best treatment options for your adolescent, and make sure they used evidence-based therapies.
One week at a detox facility won’t cure an addiction. In fact, people in recovery from substance use disorders often say that they’ll always be in recovery. Addiction treatment teaches patients how to avoid relapse and live a purposeful life in recovery.
Treatment should include evidence-based therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavior therapy. These therapies teach people how to identify and correct problematic behaviors and develop ways to cope with stress and other triggers.
Several other types of therapy have been effective with teens, including:
Family-based therapies focus on improving communication between teens, parents and siblings, enhancing a family member’s motivation to improve and rewarding positive family behavior. In addition to practicing evidence-based therapies, treatment providers should prepare teens for transitioning back to school, work and everyday life.
Rehab can be expensive, but insurance covers the bulk of treatment costs. Children can be covered by a parent’s workplace insurance plan until they are 26 years old thanks to the Affordable Care Act. If you don’t have health insurance or you can’t afford to insure your child, they should be eligible for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Insurance plans have to cover substance use disorder treatment the same way that they cover other chronic health conditions such as diabetes or hypertension. Parents may still have to pay copays or meet deductibles, but there are a number of other ways they can pay for treatment.
A parent’s first job is to get help for their child. Once the child has started treatment, you should support the recovery process. That might mean driving them to appointments or picking up and keeping track of medications. It also means supporting your child during emotionally difficult times.
If a doctor recommends family therapy, parents and other family members should participate with an open mind. During other therapy appointments, it may be best to give your teenager privacy with his or her counselor. You should encourage your child to be completely honest the counselor or therapist at all times.
“The family has to be a part of the solution,” said Dr. Kevin Wandler, chief medical officer of Advanced Recovery Systems. “The exception is, of course, if the parents are a part of the problem.”
Remember that doctors and therapists don’t have to tell you what your child shares with them unless they believe the child is as at risk for harming themselves or others. Support the client-patient relationship because therapists will do what’s best for your child, and that may mean keeping some things a secret from you.
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Parents should continue to support their child’s recovery even after treatment comes to an end. Try to maintain a low-stress environment at home, discontinue your own alcohol or drug use in front of your children and continue to enforce rules.
Tips for parents to help teens during recovery:
Family members should ask their therapist about random drug tests. Testing your children for drugs may weaken trust, so you should explain that you trust them but not their disease. You should establish consequences for breaking rules and clearly communicate why the rules are in place. You should also reward teens for good behavior. Rewarding good behavior may be as important as punishing poor behavior.
In addition to establishing a safe, supportive and disciplined home environment, you should help your child in recovery find support in the community.
Encourage your teen to continue to receive aftercare support. You can ask for a referral to local support groups or other aftercare services from a health care provider. Support groups include 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous and teen groups such as Alateen.
If there is a recovery high school in your area, it may be the best option for your teen’s return to school. Only children in recovery from addiction can attend recovery schools, and the faculty and staff members at the schools are trained to work with recovering teens.
The programming at many recovery high schools includes group meetings where teens connect with their peers to support each other’s recovery efforts. Some schools also offer family therapy, student-run self-help meetings and community service programs.
If self-help groups don’t work for your child, find something that does. Teens in recovery can find support from peers in other organizations such as youth groups, sports clubs or service organizations. Peer support is one of the most effective resources for teens in recovery.
It’s also important to understand that relapse happens. Teens may test boundaries with parents, and they are often prone to compulsive behavior. Remember, about one-third of teens relapse within the first three months after treatment. With patience and love, parents can guide their children through recovery.
Recovery isn’t easy, and many people relapse multiple times. But relapse doesn’t equal failure. Parents should enforce rules for a drug-free home, but they should also be understanding if relapse occurs.
You should talk to your teen’s treatment provider to determine the appropriate steps to take after relapse. Steps may include a return to an inpatient facility or outpatient therapy. It’s important for parents to recognize the warning signs of relapse, which are similar to the warning signs for drug abuse, to prevent it from continuing.
Parents of teens who use drugs often develop feelings of guilt or shame. If your child develops a substance use disorder, that doesn’t mean you have failed as parent. It means your child has a genetic predisposition to addiction, and he or she needs to avoid addictive substances throughout life. It means your child may need more attention and support than other teens.
Providing that support can be difficult. The extra effort it takes can be exhausting. Teens affected by addiction may act out, have conduct problems and show little desire to quit drinking or using. The behaviors can be frustrating, and parents can develop symptoms of depression or anxiety.
You have to find support for yourself to be able to help your family. Consider seeking assistance from one of several organizations that assist parents or family members affected by addiction. Talking to others in situations similar to yours can be therapeutic and beneficial.
Parents do not need to feel helpless if their loved one is suffering from addiction. They can encourage their teen to make healthy decisions, mandate that they attend treatment and support them in recovery.
Al-Anon is composed of family members affected by a loved one’s problematic drinking, and Nar-Anon is composed of families affected by someone else’s illicit drug use. The free support group meetings are held multiple times each week in communities across the country.
If you have other children who have been affected by a family member’s drinking, you should see if they’re interested in attending Alateen meetings. Alateen is composed of teens affected by a sibling, parent or other family member’s problem drinking. Meetings are often held at locations near Al-Anon meetings.
Parents of Addicted Loved Ones is a Christian-based nonprofit for mothers and fathers of children with substance use disorders. Parents from any faith background are welcome at meetings. The primary goal of the organization is to educate and support parents. The nonprofit holds weekly meetings in 16 states across the country and semi-monthly telephone meetings available cost-free to anyone.