Addressing Drug and Alcohol Use with a Teenager

June 15th, 2013 | Posted by Brian Pearson in Children
Two parents have asked similar questions about teenage drug and alcohol use, and I’ll address them both in this Q&A
1. My 15 year old son just started in high school this year.  He has always been a good student, but this year his grades have dropped and he is hanging around with friends that I’m not sure about.  He is also giving me some attitude lately, which is not like him.  When I ask him about his grades, he makes excuses and blames the teachers.  I’m worried that he might be getting involved with alcohol or drugs, or something else.  I am tempted to look at his e-mail account and his phone. I have already looked around his room, and felt terrible afterward!  What should I do?  When is it okay to invade my son’s privacy?
 2. How do I explain the dangers of drugs and alcohol to my teenage son without sounding like a fuddy duddy? I want him to enjoy the company of his friends but I worry about the dangers he will be exposed to. Thanks,Laura
 As I discussed in a previous Q& A, Struggling with 16 year old, adolescence is a time when identity development is a significant task and figuring out “who am I” becomes a primary question. Therefore, it is not unusual for kids who have normally been “good kids” to start engaging in some behaviors that are new and different for them, and frankly, alarming for their parents. Your concerns are real and justified, based on the behaviors you have described. However, it is an art to challenge these behaviors in a way that doesn’t alienate the teenager and engage their oppositional tendencies.
As someone who was a very rebellious teenager, I can guarantee that misguided attempts to exert parental control are a sure way to alienate your teen. As a parent who has raised a spirited teenager, I can relate to the anxiety that is produced when kids start to “grow up” and act in ways that are new and different. As a professional, with my years of working with families, I will tell you that it’s well worth learning some skills that are designed to address teen behaviors that raise “red flags,” and our anxiety level right along with it. Even with the alarm bells going off, it is important that we step back and figure out the best, age-appropriate approach.

For instance, taking a cue from the tone of the second question – “how do I explain the dangers of drugs and alcohol to my teenage son without sounding like a fuddy duddy?” bringing up the issue for discussion, before making further choices to breach your son’s privacy, can be a helpful strategy. While I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions, substance use (alcohol or drugs) is a very real possibility at your son’s age. Many teens use drugs and alcohol as a way of dealing with stress – and the transition from middle school to high school is indeed one of the risk factors for underage drinking.

Although not all teens drink, the percentage who has tried alcohol increases with every year after age12, when it is around 10%. By age 15, 50% of teens have tried alcohol at least once. Most underage drinking happensThis type of information can provide a starting point for a conversation with a teenager. In fact, the SAMHSA’s Too Smart To Start website also provides a wealth of other information on the effects of underage alcohol use as well as tips for parents on how to talk to their teens.
Here is my Readers’ Digest version of how not to sound like a “fuddy duddy” (I love that term!), when you talk to your kids about drugs and alcohol use:
  1. Start with a caring approach – expressing you are aware that their life is changing. Ask questions about stressors, and really try to listen to the teen’s point of view rather than minimizing or judging what might be stressful to them
  2. Then state what you have observed, and your concerns for your teenager’s well being.
  3. Emphasize that you are no stranger to the idea that teens drink and use drugs
  4. You may use you knowledge of the facts about underage drinking to challenge any defensiveness you encounter
  5. Do not give suggestions or try to “fix” the problem, unless asked, but do let the teenager know the household rules about underage use of alcohol and drugs.
  6. Related to # 5, consider the rules you want to have in place prior to having a conversation with your teen. Do make sure you have clear, fair, and enforceable consequences for breaking any of the rules you make.
As far as snooping goes, whether directly searching your child’s room or checking his cell phone or email, opinions vary about the appropriateness of this approach. Spying on your 15-year old may be unnecessary if you communicate your concerns and your son responds in a positive manner. In my opinion, breaching your child’s privacy should be used only as a last resort. However, let’s be clear that safety comes before privacy, and privacy is a privilege. If your child does not respond in kind to your attempts to communicate with care, honesty, and openness, by all means, do what you need to do to keep him safe, even if that means checking-up on him. In fact, let him know up front that you will be doing this, and refuse to be manipulated by statements like, “but that’s my phone, you have no right to look at it,” or “if you look in my room, you’ll just force me to hide stuff elsewhere.” That may be true, but you can only do what you can do, and certainly you must do what you can do. On that note, please be aware that teenagers are most likely to obtain alcohol from within their own homes. So, be sure you are not inadvertently providing access to the very substance that you are trying to restrict you child from using.
If you discover that your fears are unfounded (and I certainly hope this is the case), remember that prevention is better than remediation. I encourage you to face the facts about underage drinking and make sure you are discussing this important topic in a straightforward way. April is Alcohol Awareness Month. This could be the perfect opportunity to talk to your teenager about the dangers of underage substance use.

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