Summertime…the living is easy…and so is access to drugs and alcohol for your teenagers.
Data tells us more teens start drinking, smoking and using other drugs in June and July than any other months of the year (with December close behind). The reasons are no-brainers – more free time and less supervision. For some it’ll be a harmless taste of something that they can easily take or leave, pick up rarely and manage responsibly without consequences. For others, it’ll be the start of a rough journey that leads to some tough outcomes and destructiveness, including addiction. For some of these kids, it’ll be what ends their lives.
Whether our kids end up in the first or second category typically depends on a combination of risk factors and how well we're able to counteract them with stronger protective factors. We know that adolescents are much more at risk who have addiction and problematic use in their family – both from inherited genetic factors and modeling. So are teens with emotional, psychological, learning and social challenges – who have stressors and hurts they’re eager to numb out and escape from, lacking in confidence, and/or more desperately seeking belonging. Put something in the hands and brains of these kids that helps them instantly feel better about themselves, connect with others, or make them forget about their stress, and the brain automatically hardwires a connection that says “YES…that worked…make sure to do THAT again!” These kids are more likely to gravitate towards and unhealthily attach to substances. Research also shows us that the younger someone starts to use a substance the more likely they are to develop a problematic relationship with it, and the more severe those problems tend to be. It’s a given that if your kiddo has any of these above risk factors, you want to intentionally address them (stay tuned for more on this…).
But understand that ALL teens are at risk to a point - their brains are wired for thrill-seeking, instant gratification, lack of big-picture/future thinking, emotional overwhelm, and a hardwiring of anything that sparks those feel-good brain chemicals in their little pleasure centers. Their natural “boredom,” insecurities, and desires to be liked and belong automatically can make substances appealing.
So WHAT do we do as parents, other than cage them up at home or implant a tracking device until 18?! Here are a few suggestions that have shown to make a difference in delaying use (all year long):
Maintain connection when they’re out or you’re not home. Check in, or ask for them to, with some regularity. This psychologically creates a sense that you’re not far away. As part of this, require that they let you know where they’re going and who they’re with.
Plug them into activities and projects. They want to PLAY in the summer and socialize, so give them as much structured and supervised opportunity to do this as possible, such as camps and community programs (like the local pool). Help them identify a hobby or interest you can get them rolling with or a home project they can get consumed with and feel valued by. They may enjoy doing some service, especially with friends - Habitat for Humanity and most animal shelters and other programs take volunteers starting at 16. It may feel good to get a part-time low-stress summer job (like babysitting, lawn-mowing or counter service), so they can start saving for things they want or a car or college fund. Involvement in physical activity and sports naturally inspire them to take better care of their bodies, even if it’s just a few hours a week at the gym.
Make it harder for them to get their hands on substances, by keeping your own out of reach, including Rx meds. Many teens grab for them because they’re right there. Have these conversations and assure you’re on the same page with parents at other households where they spend time. Be aware that almost anything can be purchased on-line these days, so check in on on-line histories, and any unmarked packages in the mail.
Maintain a “village” mentality by forming relationships with your kid’s friends and their parents. Check in with parents about plans kids are making, and have conversations about risks and guidelines you all have around substance use, so you can support each other through this crazy adolescent thing.
Stay educated and resist naiveté and denial. Assume they’re exposed to, aware of and doing more than you think. Ideally, you have an open dialogue with your teens about what’s going on in their world around substances (see future post…), but this isn’t always so easy. Do some asking around with other parents and school counselors about the current trends in your area – what teens are doing, how and where. Initiate and maintain conversation about these. Parents may not realize the places their kids are hanging out are dealing/using hotspots (i.e. the mall, skate-park). Every time I do a parent workshop on latest local and national trends (also coming soon…), many parents are clueless and shocked!
Stay plugged into your kids’ social media accounts and activity as this is often where pro-use attitudes are fed and using plans concocted. Diving into their personal messaging isn’t necessary unless there’s safety concerns, but you should have awareness of any accounts they have, know all passwords (so you can check in on hidden activity), and be following them yourself.
Equip your kids with info and resistance skills. Let them know that you know what’s out there and understand the temptations in the summer (some things don’t change). Help them get accurate info on substances and trends from reliable sources vs other teens. Ask about what peer pressure really looks & feels like at their age, and brainstorm real ways to navigate these situations while keeping their cool points (including effective strategies that make you the bad guy like “My Mom’s checking my breath and eyes every time I leave the house, so I can’t”). Establish code words/phrases and plans for you to help them get out of unsafe and uncomfortable situations.
All of the above will likely be met with ongoing grumblings, eye rolls, and pleadings for you to be “cooler” or ”more chill” (as mine says). Do it anyway. It's not easy. It will mean they're mad at us sometimes and say horrible things to their friends about us. But their health and safety is 100% our responsibility until they're 18, move out, and/or go to college. We can do all of the above to the best of our ability, but still have to accept that as we drop them off somewhere, or they drive off in cars, they could honestly be going anywhere with anyone and have very skillful ways of deceiving us. GPS tracking devices, strict phone and computer controls, and home drug tests exist...but won't help strengthen a respectful and authentic connection between you. Ultimately the greatest prevention tool is a trusting relationship and open communication with their parents.