Parents: Are You Accidentally Encouraging Teen Substance Abuse?

eyerollingParents with the best of intentions sometimes do things that unwittingly encourage their teens to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Take the time to make sure you are not making these common mistakes:

Not Taking a Firm Stand Against Drug Use

Long before your child faces the pressures of adolescence, they should know your stance on drugs. If you convey the message that experimentation is OK, they are more likely to use drugs or alcohol. Parents should set firm rules that demonstrate that you expect them to stay drug-free. A 2011 study reported that the more parents expect their teens to engage in risky behaviors such as drinking and using drugs, the more likely their teens are to follow through with those behaviors.

Sharing Your Own Experience with Drugs

Parents might be tempted, when having the drug talk with their kids, to share some personal experiences about their past pot smoking or alcohol binging to show a little empathy or to demonstrate how bad the results can be. A new study suggests that’s a bad idea. Researchers surveyed middle school students about their attitudes towards drug use. When their parents shared their past stories, negative consequences, and regrets over their own use of alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes, their kids were less likely to report their attitude as anti-drug. It would be more effective, researchers say, for parents to simply explain the facts and risks of substance abuse, how to avoid drugs, and express their disapproval of any substance use. If parents want to share something personal to “make it real,” researchers suggest you tell a story about someone else who was hurt or got in trouble for using substances. In fact, these stories – perhaps someone you knew in high school that was killed in a drunk driving accident – seem to be very effective in bringing home the consequences of drug use.

Neglecting the Drug Talk
With anti-drug programs occurring in school, parents can easily assume that teens are receiving all of the information they need. Nothing can be farther than the truth for these reasons:

  • Schools provide factual information about substance abuse. Only parents provide a framework for understanding family values. Studies show that children who know their parents are against drugs are less likely to abuse substances.
  • Teenagers see their peers, and even other adults, drinking alcohol and smoking. Teens also see drug use on popular media. In a 2011 study, 47% of teens agreed that movies and TV shows make drugs seem like an acceptable thing to do. From their view on the sidelines, drug use appears fun, enjoyable, and safe, so they begin to see alcohol or smoking as a part of the normal teenage experience.
  • Despite the school’s efforts, teens receive, and believe, a lot of misinformation from their peers. Nearly every teenager has friends who claim to be experts on various recreational substances, and they’re happy to assure your child that the risks are minimal. Do not assume your teen has the real facts about the dangers of drug use. Educate them yourself.


What's this?Not Practicing What You Preach

Children always pay closer attention to what you do than to what you say. Even fiercely independent teens are heavily influenced by their parents. That said, if you smoke, drink excessively, use prescription medications for anything other than their stated purpose, drink to cope with stress, or use drugs, you are modeling that behavior to your teen. Research shows that having a parent who uses drugs is a strong predictor of adolescent substance abuse.

Providing Alcohol to Teens in your Home

Many a well-meaning parent has said they would prefer their child and friends drink at their own home where they can keep an eye on them rather than go somewhere else to drink. Unfortunately, regardless of what you say, the message teens receive is that drug use is acceptable. A 2011 study shows that teens who drink with an adult supervising are more likely to develop problems with alcohol than kids who aren’t allowed to drink until they hit age 21.

There have been some advocates of supervised teen drinking saying that European teens don’t have problems with binge drinking because they “learn” to drink at home with their parents. However, a study of Dutch youth demonstrated that teens who were allowed to drink alcohol at home also drank more outside the home than their peers and were at increased risk of developing alcohol problems, according to researchers from Radboud University Nijmegen. According to the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Drugs, the proportion of 15 to 16-year-olds who binge drink is higher in France, Italy, Denmark, Ireland and other northern European countries than in the United States.

Ignoring Warning Signs

Some parents may notice changes in their teen – anger, moodiness, new friends, much less or much more energy, weight loss or gain, or inattention to personal hygiene – but assume it’s just a part of being a teenager. Some parents may know that their child is impulsive or depressed, but not consider that this could lead them to drug use. One of the main reasons teens try drugs is to escape their frustration. Even the brightest, most mature teens can make bad decisions about drugs and alcohol. Adolescence is a difficult time to assess what’s normal, but by being actively involved in your child’s day-to-day life, you’ll be the first to notice if something seems out of the ordinary.

Waiting to Get Help

As a parent, we love to give second chances. What mom or dad can assume the worst of the person they have held in their arms as an infant? Although it’s good to give our kids the benefit of the doubt, there are some times when you simply can’t delay a quick reaction. Drug use in adolescence can damage the brain and increases the risk of addiction and other problems later in life. If you discover your teen is abusing substances – whether that’s alcohol, cigarettes, prescription medications, or illegal drugs – get help right away.

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