teen substance use

Those teen and young adult years are confusing, complicated, and formative.

Understanding what’s happening socially and developmentally — and how it can intersect with substance use — is fundamental to setting the stage for healthier outcomes. This is why it’s important to take any substance use seriously. But, as a parent, before acting on impulse, take a breath and review strategies for communicating effectively and encouraging positive behavior change with youth.

As caring parents, we immunize our children. We require them to wear seat belts in the car and helmets while biking. We insist on sunscreen. We do just about everything we can to ensure that our kids are healthy, safe, and primed for success. But when it comes to drinking alcohol or even smoking marijuana, why does it seem so easy to shrug it off as “a rite of passage” or “just experimenting”?

It’s easy to recognize the obvious risks of drug, alcohol, or nicotine use – that is, it can result in negative consequences like car accidents, personal injury, and in some cases may even lead to addiction. But less obvious is the impact substance use has on the still-developing teen brain.

In the same way, we’ve come to recognize the negative consequences that a mother’s drinking or smoking can have on a developing fetus, we now know there are distinct risks to brain development with teen substance use.

Perhaps I should try a metaphor. Like, the construction of a house. First, a foundation is poured, followed by framing, wiring, and plumbing over the course of time. The brain develops in a similar way, with the foundation being laid before birth and into the early years of childhood. Adolescence is another time of rapid brain development where the brain’s framing and wiring become more efficient and the brain develops skills to focus, prioritize and problem-solve.

Vaping, drinking, or using substances can damage the brain’s wiring, increasing the likelihood of learning difficulties and physical and mental health problems during the teen years and well into adulthood. Just as a house is still functional with a cracked foundation and faulty wiring, so is the human brain, but neither is optimal.

From mood swings to rebellion, many types of challenging behavior are normal during the teen years, but experimenting with substance use isn’t one of them. We also need to rethink our perception of norms. It’s not true that “everyone vapes” or “everyone drinks.” That said, a variety of common teen experiences can become an excuse or reason for substance use.

Understanding why some teens drink or use substances is a valuable step toward keeping them healthy and safe.

Feelings of being an outsider and longing to be included and liked by others are pretty pronounced during the teen years. If the kids your teen wants to be friends with or is hanging out with are drinking or using substances, they may feel that they need to participate as well or risk being left out. Some teens see substance use as an easy path to making friends, fitting in, or being accepted with the “right” crowd. If this is the case, there are things you can do like: getting to know your kid’s friends and their parents and talking with those parents about their approach to supervision and their stance on substance use; assuring your child that they can call you to be picked up whenever needed, no questions asked; and having a conversation with them about their need for acceptance and to fit in. Explain that real friends will give them space to be themselves and won’t make them do anything they’re uncomfortable with.

We also know that some teens use drugs and alcohol to overcome insecurities, let their guard down, and feel socially confident. Substance use may make them feel like they are really open and connecting with others. In addition to more obvious risks, this can lead teens to feel like substance use is necessary to achieve a certain level of interaction. You can help them by finding activities so they can socialize in a healthy, safe, and supervised environment. And by the way, if your child is socializing at someone else’s home, know where they will be. Call the parents in advance to verify the occasion, location, and that there will be supervision.

And please always keep in mind that certain unavoidable situations can arise at any time and affect your child — like moving, divorce, puberty, changing schools, or an illness or death in the family. These can lead some to attempt to find solace in alcohol or drugs. If this is true in your household, make sure you ramp up the monitoring and communication during and after periods of transition; make sure you encourage an open dialogue with your teen about their experiences; and if possible, set aside regular one-on-one time with your teen to bond and have fun together.

Whether it’s the pressure of everyday teen drama or the emotional toll of family problems, stress, or trauma, some teens use substances to dull the very real pain in their lives. Loneliness, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety disorder, and other mental health issues are commonly associated with teen substance use. Furthermore, many of these issues occur in combination with one another, each compounding the intensity of the others.

As a parent, you could offer empathy and compassion. Let your child know you understand. Acknowledge that everyone struggles sometimes. Make sure you model healthy coping skills like exercise, meditation, or mindfulness. And, and of course, if your child is suffering, reassure them that you will seek out appropriate professional help and then do just that. You can call Wellspring’s helpline at 732.254.3344 or use our online Help Tool.

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