Ever feel like keeping your teen safe is a full-time job? That’s because it can be. Teenagers are programmed for risk-taking, according to research from Temple University. While the parts of the brain that control emotion and social interaction are highly active during adolescence, the behavior-regulation center doesn’t fully mature until around age 25.
This helps explain why the answers to timeless parental questions like, “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you, too?” are a resounding yes!
All of this thrill-seeking means that even if your teen understands the dangers of drug use and “knows better,” they’re still at risk. Although the reasons for teen drug use are as complex as teenagers themselves, here are five of the most common reasons teens start using drugs, along with steps you can take to stop them in their tracks:
Many teens find that they “feel better” for a while when they use drugs. Whether it’s a family conflict, trouble at school, or feelings of sadness, nervousness or anger, the majority will not take a deeper look at what they are medicating; they just know that drugs offer a temporary escape. In some cases, an undiagnosed and untreated mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety may be at the root of the need to self-medicate.
What to Do: If your child is struggling with low self-esteem, depression or other emotional issues, drug use probably isn’t “just a phase.” Talk to a doctor or therapist if you notice lasting changes in your child’s grades, mood or behavior. If your child is using drugs, start a dialogue with them and contact an addiction treatment program. Problems often escalate during adolescence and can develop into addictions that last well into adulthood.
Although they crave independence, teens’ brains and emotional development remain immature. For many, their self-worth is based on fitting in with their peers, even if it means doing things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Without adequate coping skills, teens may not know how to handle peer pressure, bullying or difficult social situations. As a result, they may use drugs because everyone else seems to be doing it or to fit in with the “popular” crowd. Those who get ostracized from certain cliques may end up finding their way into a more accepting drug-using peer group.
Insecure or socially awkward teens may find that using drugs or alcohol allows them to release their inhibitions at parties or other social events. They may suddenly feel confident enough to approach a romantic interest, or courageous enough to let loose and make new friends. If they do something embarrassing, at least their peers will assume they just overdid it on the partying.
What to Do: Know your child’s ever-changing list of friends and if they’re struggling socially. One way to do this is by encouraging your teen’s friends to hang out at your house, while of course respecting a certain degree of privacy. A sudden change in friends may be the result of a harmless adjustment in class schedule, or it could be a cry for help. Only by communicating with your child and monitoring changes can you distinguish one situation from the other. If your child shares a problem with you, work through it together and offer ideas on healthy ways to cope.
Stressed out teens are at double the risk for drug abuse, according to a survey by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Stress may arise from something as simple as a big test or a fight with a friend, or something as complex as a major life transition (e.g., puberty, a parent’s divorce, death or illness of a loved one, moving to a new home, changing schools, or graduating to middle school or high school).
A study by the Partnership at Drugfree.org found that although 73 percent of teens reported school stress as the number-one reason for using drugs, only 7 percent of parents thought teens might use drugs for that purpose. Even if an experience doesn’t seem stressful to you, remember that raging teen hormones heighten emotions and if your teen feels stressed, they are at risk.
What to Do: Stay involved in your teen’s life. Study after study shows that teens with involved parents feel less stressed and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as drug use. Being involved means knowing when your child is feeling stressed or overwhelmed, knowing where they are and what they’re doing, and keeping the lines of communication open so they feel comfortable venting to you. Setting aside regular parent-child bonding time, helping them with their homework, attending their performances or sporting events, and sharing regular family meals can help ensure that communication remains open.
Boredom can be a teen’s biggest enemy. According to CASA, bored teens are 50 percent more likely to use drugs and alcohol. The risk is even greater among teens who have $25 or more per week in spending money. Teens who are sick of watching TV or playing video games may begin to look to drugs as a fun, easily accessible and “harmless” way to pass the time. This is especially true of alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs, which teens perceive as less dangerous than other drugs.
What to Do: Parents who expect their teen to experiment with drugs are far more likely to have a teen who uses drugs. Set high but realistic expectations for your teen and make sure they know the rules and consequences for breaking those rules. To combat boredom, encourage your teen to sign up for an extracurricular activity, sports team, community class or volunteer organization so they stay just the right amount of busy.
Teenagers are naturally experimental. If their friends have tried drugs and boast about how they make them feel, your child’s curiosity will be peaked. While some resist the temptation by staying actively involved in other pursuits and recalling the long-term dangers of drug use, others will give in to the promise of immediate gratification.
What to Do: Educate your child about the dangers of drug use. Research shows that teens who learn about the risks from their parents are 50 percent less likely to use drugs than teens who do not learn these lessons at home. Since teens are programmed to thrill-seek, create opportunities for strategic risk-taking through adventure sports, traveling, experimenting with new looks and other healthy outlets.
Researchers, parents and even teens themselves used to believe teens were using drugs to have fun. Upon closer inspection, we have learned that teens, like adults, more often use drugs to solve problems. And while problems are a fact of life, drug use is not.
Parents want to understand. They want to help. In order to do so, find out what is motivating your child to use drugs and then help them solve their problems without resorting to drug or alcohol use.
Unhappy teen photo available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 2 Jun 2012