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How to Talk to Your Teen about Drug Abuse

“Addiction is a pediatric disease. When adults entering addiction treatment are asked when they first began drinking or using drugs, the answer is almost always the same: they started when they were young – teenagers.” ~ Dr. John Knight, Founder/Director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Boston Children’s Hospital It is every parent’s worst nightmare: that their child becomes involved with drugs or alcohol. Unlike most nightmares, however, this one stands a good chance of coming true.

Frightening Statistics for Parents about Teen Drug Abuse and Alcohol Use

According to CBS News:

  • 78% of US teens have tried alcohol.
  • Almost half47% – said that they have drunk 12 or more alcoholic beverages within the last year.
  • 81% of American teens have had opportunities to use illicit drugs.
  • Over 42% have tried illicit drugs.

“Monitoring the Future”, a 2014 survey of US 8th, 10th, and 12th graders concerning their attitudes about and usage of drugs found:

  • Recent alcohol use increases as the teenager get older – 9% of 8th graders, 5% of 10th graders, and 37.4% of 12th graders responded that they had used alcohol within the past month.
  • Overall, approximately 1 in 5 US high school seniors said that they engaged in binge-drinking in 2014. Binge-drinking is defined as having five or more drinks on one occasion within the past 14 days.
  • Combining all grades, 4% of US teenagers – more than 1 in 4 – use some sort of illicit substance within the past year.
  • As with alcohol, marijuana usage increases with age –5%, 16.6%, and 21.2%, respectively.
  • 6% of US high school seniors say that they use marijuana daily.
  • More than 4 out of every 5 US high school seniors believe that marijuana is “easy to get”.
  • A decreasing number of high school seniors think that smoking marijuana can be harmful. Last year, only 1% thought cannabis use was risky, compared to 56.7% in 2009.
  • 6.1% of high school seniors used narcotics in 2014.
  • Barely half of the high school seniors – 1% – think taking prescription stimulants is harmful.

There Is Good News about Teen Substance Abuse

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the same survey showed that there was no increase in the use of marijuana by teenagers compared to years past, and in fact, there were decreases in the use of alcohol, prescription pain medications, cocaine, crystal meth, inhalants, and synthetic drugs.

What Do All of the Statistics about Teen Drug and Alcohol Use Mean?

When a parent takes a close look at the data, two implications stand out – First, although the rates of usage are decreasing, there are still far too many American teenagers using alcohol and/or drugs, sometimes on a daily basis. Second, because those usage rates are going down, it shows that preventative measures DO work, and if those efforts are stepped up, teen drug and alcohol use can be reduced even more. Education, open communication, and proactive, positive interactions are the greatest tools at concerned parents’ disposal.

Practical Guidelines for Talking with Your Teen about Drug and Alcohol Abuse

Many parents are hesitant to talk to their teenagers about alcohol and drugs, feeling that by bringing the subject up, they may spark unwanted curiosity in their child. The reality is this – drugs and alcohol are out there, and your child almost certainly will be confronted with situations where they will have to make personal choices. Conversations now can make all the difference later.

  • Set expectations – teenagers need boundaries. Explain clearly what is and is not allowed, including consequences.
  • Inform your children about the real dangers associated with alcohol and drug abuse. Use real-life examples whenever possible – headlines, news stories, and other “teachable moments”.
  • Be honest – if you have experimented with drugs in the past, explain to your child why it was a mistake.
  • Encourage your child to talk to you – anytime and anywhere. Always remember to stay non-judgmental and calm. Listen.
  • Keep your child busy with positive activities – sports, after-school activities, family functions, etc. Bored teenagers with nowhere to go and nothing to do are more likely to seek out their own, possibly harmful entertainment.
  • Pay attention to a child – always know where they are going and who they are with.
  • Give your child practical strategies that they can use when they are in a potentially risky situation. Teach them how to say “no” to peer pressure. Make them check-in, and perhaps even give them “code words” that they can tell you to let you know if they need help.
  • Institute a “no-questions-asked” policy – if your teenager calls you to tell you that they are somewhere around drugs or alcohol, that you will come to get them, no matter what.
  • Spend time with your teenager – family dinners, activities, get-togethers, etc. The more you are positively involved in your child’s life, the less likely they are to use drugs and alcohol.

Don’t Delay If You Suspect Your Teenager Is Abusing Drugs or Alcohol

If you see any suspicious signs – unexplained behavior, declining grades, changes in personal appearance or hygiene, etc. – then time is of the essence. Get others involved – the school counselor, your family doctor, a member of your clergy, substance abuse professionals – to get guidance about how best to proceed. The earlier you can recognize a problem, the better chance you have at getting your teenager the help they need.