Our country is in the depths of an opioid epidemic, but a large number of calls to our Parent Helpline are from parents concerned about their son’s or daughter’s marijuana use. A timely reminder that while the landscape is constantly shifting, some substances — namely marijuana and alcohol — remain ones that parents should be vigilant about.
“It’s a rite of passage.”
“He’s just experimenting.”
“It’s a phase. She’ll grow out of it.”
Our culture has a habit of justifying certain types of teen and young adult substance use as perfectly normal, but research indicates otherwise. Ninety percent of addictions begin during the teen years, while the brain is still very much in development. Risk-taking and making mistakes may be normal teen behavior, but when it comes to substance use, there is reason to be concerned and take action.
Why Is Substance Use in the Teen Years Such a Big Deal?
In the same way we’ve come to recognize the negative consequences that a mother’s drinking or smoking can have on a developing fetus, substance use poses distinct risks to the teen brain, which is in another key developmental phase. Adolescence is a time during which the brain increases efficiency and acquires skills to focus, prioritize and problem-solve. This period of development begins at puberty and lasts until one’s mid-20’s.
Substance use can interrupt and interfere with brain development, which in turn, may adversely impact learning and raise the risks of developing anxiety, depression and substance use disorders into adulthood.
Risk Factors Make Some Teens More Vulnerable
Some young people are more vulnerable to developing a substance use disorder than others. These teens typically have certain risk factors, including:
Family history of problems related to substance use
Underlying mental health problems
Impulse control problems
Even if these risk factors aren’t present, teen substance use can result in car accidents, unsafe sex, violence, poorer academic performance or other serious issues.
The older someone is before engaging in any drug or alcohol use, the better the outcome that he or she will not have a problem with substances. Given that alcohol, and in more and more states, marijuana, is legal for those of age, the refrain is one of delay, delay, delay. But what can you do in a culture where drinking and drug use is so pervasive?
Model healthy behaviors. After a stressful day, instead of reaching for a glass of wine or beer, try going for a walk, deep breathing or other healthy relaxation techniques.
Acknowledge and positively reinforce decisions to not use drugs or alcohol.
If your child is “experimenting,” it’s time to start talking. Have a conversation about what he or she sees as the benefits of using alcohol or other drugs. Reasons for use often include thrill seeking, escaping boredom, social pressure to fit in, escape from problems or easing anxiety. Finding healthy alternatives that address his or her reasons and compete with substance use can move a teen in the direction of lowered use or abstinence.