When a teenager starts using drugs, the finger-pointing begins. The first to get blamed is usually a parent, followed perhaps by a bad influence at school, an older sibling or a high-pressure coach or teacher. While there's no place for blame -- it's counterproductive and in most cases, misplaced -- there is room for understanding.
Well-meaning parents sometimes do things that unwittingly encourage their teens to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Is there room for improvement in your parenting practices?
#1 Being Wishy-Washy About Drug Use
Long before your kids facethe pressures of adolescence, they should know your stance on drugs. If you convey the message that experimentation is OK, they're more likely to use drugs or alcohol, increasing the risk of accidents, injuries, high-risk sexual behaviors and addiction.
Set firm rules and expectations but understand that your children may have questions, and they may still be curious about drugs. Make sure they feel comfortable talking to you by asking questions and listening without judgment. That way, you know yours is at least one of the voices they hear on the subject.
#2 Ignoring the Underlying Issues
Is your child impulsive, aggressive or socially withdrawn? Are they falling behind in school or struggling with behavioral or mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or ADHD? All of these can be underlying causes of substance abuse. As stressed-out parents, it's tempting to ignore teenagers' complaints about their stress levels but almost three-quarters of teens cite school stress as a leading cause of drug abuse.
Assess your child's risk level and have open conversations about your concerns. Talking to your child about the risk factors for addiction is especially important if there's a history of drug or alcohol problems in your family.
#3 Not Practicing What You Preach
At any age, children pay closer attention to what you do than what you say. Even fiercely independent teens are heavily influenced by their parents, so if you drink excessively or use drugs, don't be surprised if your teen follows suit. Having a parent who uses drugs is a strong predictor of adolescent substance abuse.
It should go without saying but never provide alcohol or other drugs to your teen or their friends. You may think they'll be safest partying in your home, but the message they receive is that drug use is acceptable, which puts them in much greater dangerin the bigger scheme. Follow your own rules and spend quality time with your child so that they are regularly exposed to your positive model.
#4 Turning a Blind Eye
Not knowing what else to do, some parents turn a blind eye to the signs of teen substance abuse. You may notice changes in your teen -- for example, moodiness, new friends, much less or much more energy, weight loss or gain, or inattention to personal hygiene -- but assume it's just a part of being a teenager. Adolescence is a difficult time to assess what's normal, but by being actively involved in your child's day-to-day life, you'll be the first to notice if something seems off. Watch particularly closely during times of transition, such as a divorce, changing schools or breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Research shows that regular monitoring and a close parent-child relationship can cut the risk of drug use.
Other denial tactics are more subtle. For example, parents may set rules about substance use but leave the medicine cabinet unlocked and loaded with addictive drugs. Every day, an average of 2,000 teens misuse prescription drugs for the first time, the majority of whom take drugs from their own homes or their friends' homes. Many teens report that prescription drugs are easier to buy then beer. Still, a recent survey shows that despite growing awareness about prescription drug addiction and the risk of overdose, most parents say they aren't all that concerned about their child.
Even the brightest, most mature teens can make bad decisions about drugs and alcohol. In fact, smart teens may be at even greater risk of substance abuse than their peers. The brain isn't fully matured until around age 25 - we can't expect teens to make adult decisions when they're operating with adolescent machinery.
#5 Waiting to Get Help
As parents, we like to give our kids the benefit of the doubt -- one more chance to outgrow a rebellious phase or to discover that they don't really like the way drugs make them feel. But drug use in adolescence, especially early adolescence (age 13 or 14), can damage the brain and increase the risk of addiction and other problems later in life.
When you're raising a teenager, every day presents new challenges. From moment to moment it can be difficult to know the right thing to do or say, but there are a few ways you can't go wrong. Spend lots of quality time with your teen and if something seems amiss, talk about it. For those occasions when talking doesn't get you anywhere, get help.Your teen's drug use isn't your fault, but you are a critical part of the solution.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes the Promises Malibu rehab centers, The Ranch, Right Step, and Spirit Lodge.