Teens face pressure to engage in substance use in a culture where alcohol and marijuana use is more prevalent than ever, and access to intoxicating drugs is as close as the family medicine cabinet. Stigma and lack of accurate information about substance use, and substance use disorder in teens can cause more harm than good, by keeping kids from getting the appropriate help and support early in life. Here are some common misconceptions about teen substance use and what to do.
- “It is common for teens to take risks. They will outgrow it.”
Age of first use is an important risk factor in the progression to substance misuse and dependence. (King & Chassin, 2007) Early abuse ofalcohol/drugs is likely to result in a lifetime of addiction. 1 in 4 Americans who began using an addictive substance before age 18 developed an addiction. (Association of Recovery Schools, www.recoveryschools.org)
- “Kids will be kids. They are experimenting. There’s no harm in it.”
There is harm. Research shows that early substance use (ages 12-17) changes the developing adolescent brain.
It negatively impacts a teen’s performance on cognitive tasks of memory, attention, spatial skills and executive functioning. (LM Squeglia, J. Jacobus et al., Jan.2009)
One conclusion made as the result of a collaborative investigation by the Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc. and the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health is that the association between substance use, academic failure and dropout are strong and well-recognized.
- “My child was caught at school using a little pot. Marijuana is being legalized in many states, it can’t be that big a risk. Besides, h/she doesn’t do it very often, only when h/she needs to relax. It’s not like h/she is using the really hard drugs.”
Adolescents who use marijuana by the age of 17 were found to be at greater risk of using other drugs and developing alcohol and drug abuse/dependence. (Lynskeyet. al. 2003)
- “This is the first I have been aware of any drug/alcohol use by my child. I don’t want to overreact. Our family can manage this. I am going to use some tough love and put him/her on ‘lock-down’.”
Beware that it is not possible to solve this challenge by making your child go “cold turkey.” There are many aspects of this situation that should be evaluated by a professional and addressed.
Despite anyone’s best efforts, a parent/guardian cannot be everywhere all the time.
Think about this:
Q: Where do teens often get drugs and/or alcohol?
A: Other teens and/or friends.
Q: Where do teens spend most of their time?
A: At school with other teens and friends.
Not to mention, it is not realistic to expect schools to manage every aspect of every student’s time while at school.
- “I can’t make my child quit. I hear that they have to hit ‘rock bottom’ before they are ready to change.”
Intervening early is more effective than waiting for significant consequences. Imagine using the “rock bottom” analogy to another health challenge.
For instance: “My child has (enter any chronic illness here, i.e. early stage cancer). We are going to treat the (enter chronic illness here) when it has progressed to a more advanced stage before we treat it.”
Sounds a little crazy. Yes?
- “We caught our child’s substance use early and addressed it with addiction treatment. She/he is now sober and we are all ready to get back to ‘our normal’ life. Thank goodness we are finished with that chapter of our lives.”
Substance use disorder is a chronic illness, like high blood pressure or diabetes. There is no cure, but there is a solution and hope. Chronic illnesses require daily attention on behalf of the one with the illness in order to stay healthy.
Recovery is the solution and it comes from one learning how to utilize recovery skills to navigate life even after the crisis has passed.
- “I did everything I was advised to do to help my child beat this illness. Now she/he has relapsed. Treatment doesn’t work! I give up!”
Relapse doesn’t mean that treatment hasn’t worked. As with many chronic illnesses, many people have one or more relapses before achieving long-lasting recovery.
Relapses happen both when the person is doing well or when struggling. Relapse can provide learning moments.
For instance, insight into triggers and what to avoid and what to address in the future.
Going through treatment once may not be sufficient to keep your child drug-free. It may take time. (Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. https://drugfree.org)
- “I have my child back after months of treatment. She/he is happy again. Our family is back, but her/his ‘old friends’ are calling and I am worried that she/he will relapse if they go back to school with those ‘friends’.”
In the United States, nearly 80% of students dealing with substance use disorder relapse upon returning to their former school after seeking initial drug or alcohol treatment.
Recent research indicates that relapse rates drop to less than 30% when students attend a recovery high school. What’s more, recovery schools produce higher graduation rates, improved school attendance and make students more likely to abstain from use of substances when they engage with the recovery school model.
- “I like the idea of a recovery school, but I don’t want that “kind of school” on my child’s records when they move on to college or career. Not to mention he/she will lose all of their old friends.”
Regarding the stigma associated with attending a recovery school, just like all other schools the only school information shown on a transcript is the school name. Consequently, the recovery piece is not included.
Leaving old friends is not easy. Acknowledge how old friends and old behaviors can put their recovery at risk. Work with your child to build a strong circle of support from like-minded peers and friends. Recovery school peers are a great place to start.
Lastly, become aware of other community-based resources that offer positive activities. These groups are sometimes referred to as Alternative Peer Groups or APGs.
Substance use comes with risk and can greatly impact an adolescent over a lifetime. Early intervention and on-going support can be the key to hope and recovery. For further information please visit any of the following resource sites.