By Laura Santomauro, L.M.F.T.
We know the statistics, the research, and the concerns about teenage substance abuse, yet, year after year, teenagers engage in this “rite of passage” despite the potential dangers. Is there really anything we can do?
Surprisingly, there is plenty we can do. Research indicates that the single most effective factor to protect against teen alcohol and drug abuse is the family. Building a strong family by creating a safe and trusting environment creates resiliencies within kids that empower them to make healthier decisions in the face of the well-known and varied risk factors.
BUILDING SOLID FAMILIES Teens with low personal control, a sense of meaninglessness in life, emotional distress, and life dissatisfaction have higher rates of drug use. Low self-esteem has always been implicated in alcohol/drug use, specifically apathy, pessimism, and alienation. Deviance, rebelliousness, and unconventional attitudes and behaviors are associated with both the circumstances and consequences of use in many studies.
Not coincidentally, each of these characteristics associated with alcohol/drug use also correlates with families in which teens feel unsupported and in conflict. Families with loose expectations, hazy boundaries, and unclear rules tend to have children feeling depressed, apathetic, not in control, and reporting a lower sense of self-esteem.
The best thing you can do to protect your child is to help him develop a good self-image. Praise teenagers for the good things they do and make sure they feel part of something special. A family offers a safe haven for children during the difficult teen and young adult years when drug and alcohol abuse is most likely to occur. While every teen will grapple with age-old issues such as sexuality, peer pressure, and the like, they don’t have to struggle alone. Having the support and structure of a solid family allows them to utilize resources not otherwise available.
HOW TO COMMUNICATE There are several ways to begin strengthening your family. Communication and connection are great ways to begin building protective factors. When tackling the tougher topics, just figuring out what to say can be a challenge. Knowing the world in which your child lives is a solid starting point. When discussing drug/alcohol use, approaching it from current life situations will keep it real, open doors for dialogue, and lessen defensiveness.
Begin by discussing the struggles of the latest movie stars, professional athletes, classmates, or relatives. Ask specific questions rather than open-ended ones. Listen and validate responses, letting teenagers know they’ve been heard and their opinions are respected.
For example, a specific question might be, “What did you think of the character in that movie?” This requires more than a one-word answer, generating a foundation on which you can build a discussion to further explore that character, decision-making process, and impact of behaviors. Other examples include: • Why do you think ________ decided to do that? • If you were in a situation like that, what might you do? • What are your thoughts on the alcohol wand?
Consider staying in touch through texting. It is quick, easy, and private. Using this tool can help parents open new lines of communication in a non-confrontational way and start conversations on sensitive topics. It also demonstrates your support and respect for their culture. Texting can also catch them in real-time and let them know you are thinking about them when they are away.
EMPOWER YOUR TEEN Adolescence is a time when kids are painfully aware of their status. They want freedom, but aren’t completely ready for it. They want rules, but would not ask for limits. It is often very enticing to want to escape these conflicts and uncomfortable feelings by using alcohol or drugs. Empowering your teen with skills to stand up to both internal and external pressures increases the likelihood that they will make healthy decisions.
Help them develop a friendly but firm response to times of pressure. Reassure them that their friends will respect their decision to say no. Role-play situations in which pressure is relentless, and help them develop an arsenal of responses. This is a great way to build confidence and prepare your teen for real life situations.
As you play the pushy peer, some responses your teen can rehearse might be: • No, I don’t like it. • I can’t, my parents will kill me. • I’m being randomly drug tested. • I have an allergy.
Discuss the subtleties of peer pressure. Recognize that it rarely is outwardly visible or verbal. Explore how your teen feels in certain situations and his or her desire to fit in and be like others. Address fears of not being “cool.” Try to include these dynamics when you act out scenarios with them.
As much as parents may not like to think about it, the truth is that most teens are trying alcohol and drugs during their high school and college years. Although experimentation with alcohol and drugs can be common, it is not safe or legal. It is important to start discussing use and abuse with your kids at an early age and keep the discussion going as they grow older.
WHAT ABOUT YOU? When kids ask you about your past it may be uncomfortable, but it provides a great opportunity. Speak openly about what tempted you, what happened, why and when alcohol and drugs are dangerous, and why it is important that your kids avoid making some of the same mistakes you may have made.
For example, when asked if you ever got drunk, you can share with your child the desire you had to fit in when everyone else was making unhealthy choices. Did you feel powerful for saying no? Did you regret saying yes? Further discussions might include the impact on self-esteem when one is bullied, or when one caves into doing something that they don’t want to do. Explore the potential negative impacts of such decision-making: reputation, self-esteem, and the dangers of drinking and driving and addiction.
Your attitude and habits with drinking and drug use definitely impact your teen. Studies have found that parental attitudes and behavior regarding alcohol and drinking influence a child’s drinking and drug use behavior. What you say, what you do, and what you tolerate in your home will make a difference.
Even though teens may not always show it, they need to know they are still important to their parents. Make it a point to regularly spend quality time with each of them, during which they have your undivided attention. Demonstrate that you honor and respect them as a person and value your time with them. It’s a tough job; if you aren’t up to the task, get help before it’s too late.
CHECK OUT The Partnership at Drugfree.org for an extensive online resource for parents. It is designed to help prevent, intervene in, or find treatment for drug and alcohol use by children.
Laura Santomauro, L.M.F.T. is a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Building Phenomenal Families. Her areas of expertise include parenting, addictions, and anxiety-related issues. She and her husband have lived in Jackson for eleven years and are raising two young children.