There’s always that one parent that makes the rest of us look bad. You know, the one that buys all the cool tech gadgets, doesn’t believe in curfews, and gets friended by their kids (and their kids’ friends) on Facebook. Although we envy any parent that gets more than one-word answers out of their teenager, is being “cool” worth the cost?
If being cool means being up on all the latest teen trends, relating to things teens care about like technology or celebrity gossip, or having the kind of relationship where your teen can tell you anything, go on making the rest of us look like dweebs.
But if your teen starts experimenting with drugs or alcohol or taking risks that put them in danger, it’s time to take a hard look at what coolness has really gotten you.
‘Teens Will Be Teens’
Cool parents have the best of intentions, but are often complicit in their child’s substance abuse. You may be enabling your child’s drug or alcohol habit if you:
• Give your child alcohol or other drugs – they’ll get their hands on them one way or another, right?
• Look the other way when you see signs of experimentation – after all, you tried a drug or two in your day and you turned out fine.
• Do drugs or drink alcohol with your teen – at least this way you’ll know they’re safe.
• Throw underage drinking parties at your home – if they party at home, you’re still in control.
• Provide money or transportation knowing it’ll be used for drugs – if you make it easier, they won’t take risks that may end up hurting themselves or others.
• Allow your child to drink or use drugs but only within certain limits (e.g., only one or two beers, or no hard drugs, just marijuana) – maybe you can teach them to drink/use “responsibly.”
The Teen Brain: A Work in Progress
While well-intentioned, all of these behaviors fail to take into account what we know about adolescents. Teenagers, especially those nearing 18, may talk, look and act strikingly similar to adults, but their brains are very different.
The reasoning and impulse control center of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) doesn’t mature until around age 25. The myelin, or “white matter,” in the teen brain is thinner, which slows communication between the different parts of the brain. Brain development, combined with hormones, is why your teen is moody, lacks good judgment, and is prone to take risks without considering the consequences.
Even more pronounced is the excitability of teen brains. Teens crave learning and thrills, making drugs a natural attraction. Not only are teens at increased risk of addiction, their still-developing bodies and brains are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of drug use. Studies show that teens who smoke pot suffer from cognitive deficits days later, whereas adults return to baseline functioning much faster. Drug use alters the dopamine system and the memory center in the brain, which can impact academic performance and social skills and make a teen feel “off” even when not using drugs.
In addition to putting your child’s health and future well-being at risk, you may be exposing your teen’s friends and yourself to harm. Under some state social host laws, hosting a teen party may be not only unwise but also illegal. Whether you gave your express permission for your teen and their friends to use drugs, simply looked the other way, or set clear rules forbidding it (which were promptly ignored), if alcohol or other drugs were made available in your home and harm ensued, you may be liable.
Bringing Responsible Parenting Back
If being your child’s friend isn’t the mark of success, what is? I admire parents who will do anything for their child, but not at the expense of what’s in the child’s best interest. Even if you have unknowingly contributed to the problem, there is still time to be part of the solution:
Recognize that your child may experiment with drugs or alcohol. Responsible parenting doesn’t mean distancing yourself and hoping for the best. A national poll by the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital shows that while parents accurately estimate the rate of substance abuse among other teens, they remain blissfully ignorant of their own children’s drug use. Rather than turning a blind eye, stay alert to the signs of drug abuse.
Know your teen’s friends. Teens who have friends who use drugs are more likely to follow suit. While you can’t choose your teen’s friends for them, you can take extra precautions to know where they are and who they’re with and ensure that an adult is present if you are concerned about peer pressure.
Take a firm stance. Peers have a lot of influence, but parents have more. Numerous studies have shown that drug use increases dramatically the more parents tolerate the behavior. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers found that adolescents whose parents permitted them to drink alcohol consumed more alcohol and experienced more negative consequences for it by the time they entered college.
Set clear rules prohibiting drug use (no exceptions) and follow through with consequences for violations of your zero-tolerance policy. Your values will get internalized and offer protection that continues into college.
Parents are sometimes afraid that setting strict rules about drug use will send mixed signals. They weren’t angelic in their adolescence, or perhaps they continue to drink or use drugs here and there, and they don’t want to be hypocritical. But failing to set clear rules, enforce curfews, and call to check in is when the real mixed messages come into play.
Stay involved. Researchers at Brigham Young University have found that parents who hold their children accountable and provide a lot of warmth offer the most protection against teen drug use. Monitoring and discipline are tied to less frequent drug use, while harsh, inconsistent or excessive discipline can have the opposite effect.
Talk a lot; listen more. Educate your teen about the dangers of drug use and how to respond if a friend is drinking and driving or they get into a difficult situation. There is no need to overreact to a single slip-up, but instead use it as an opportunity to share your values. Open the lines of communication by asking questions in a nonthreatening way and actively listening, without lectures or judgment.
Be attentive to your child’s needs. Research shows that a close parent-child relationship can delay the onset of drinking, which reduces the likelihood of alcohol problems later in life. Stay alert to the signs of academic problems and mental health disorders. Many teens abuse drugs in an effort to fit in with a negative peer group or self-medicate an underlying problem.
Follow your own rules. If you drink or use drugs, your kids are more likely to follow your example. In a Columbia University study, teens whose fathers had more than two drinks a day had a 71 percent higher risk of abusing drugs. Because they don’t see drugs as harmful when their parents use them, teens start experimenting earlier and are drawn to peers that also use drugs. If you have a drug problem, get help not only for yourself but also for your child.
Build a support network. No matter how cool you are, your child may not always come to you with a problem. Find another trusted adult your child can talk to, such as an aunt or uncle, grandparent, clergy, or a therapist.
Being in a field where I see the devastating consequences of drug use every day, I quit being jealous of the cool parent long ago. If you’ve parented with a lot of love and accountability, and your kids trust and respect you, you’ve accomplished something much more important (and long-lasting) than achieving some sought-after social status. And for this, I say be uncool and proud.
David Sack, M.D. is board certified in Addiction Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine. He is the CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment programs that include Promises Treatment Centers, The Ranch rehab in Tennessee, and the Florida rehab The Recovery Place.
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Last reviewed: 7 Mar 2012