Talk to any group of teenagers and you are likely to hear about stress: the pressure to achieve academically, to get into a good college, to be well-rounded, to be beautiful, to be thin, to be popular, to find their passion. One group that spends a lot of time listening to teenagers is the Freedom Institute, a New York-based group that focuses, in its Independent School Program, on adolescents at risk for alcohol and drug use. They see increasing demands on adolescents, combined with 21st century lifestyles, making kids more vulnerable than ever to drug abuse and addiction.
In their new book, Stay Connected: Helping Your Teen Navigate Tough Choices, the Independent School Program offers parents a guide to some of the typical scenarios that can lead kids to get deeply into substance use, and practical advice on how to steer your child away from those risky situations. What follows is an excerpt from the book.
With the increasing demands put on teens today, they are especially vulnerable to the dangers of abusing drugs and developing addiction. Below you will find current trends in teen behavior regarding the use of alcohol and other drugs—and strategies for you to use to counteract the beliefs and practices that your teen is likely to encounter.
This form of socializing involves imbibing large amounts of alcohol and/or other drugs with the goal of becoming intoxicated quickly and intensely, so that the “high” can be sustained over several hours. Teens often “pre-game” before school-sanctioned events, family functions, or other social situations where access to substances will be restricted or limited. Often pre-gaming occurs in the taxi or limo on the way to the event, or on the street corner outside the event. It may also take place at the home of the child whose parents are out, unaware, or permissive. Alcohol may be hidden in water bottles, soda cans, or other harmless looking containers and taken along on the way to the event.
What to do: Talk to your child about the dangers of pre-gaming and your prohibition of it in your house. If you know your child is going to a school dance or to a private party, remind him that your non-negotiable rule is NO drinking before he goes. Know your child’s plan for the time leading up to the event. Plan to spend that time with your child (i.e., dinner, movie, theater or concert) or have your child’s friends over for dinner and a movie at your house before the event, and then escort them to the location. If teens come over to your house to get ready together, make sure you are present and involved.
Work hard, play hard
Teens at competitive secondary schools often say the rigor of their academic weeks necessitates weekends spent kicking back and getting drunk and/or high. Many teens believe that alcohol and other drugs are their reward for hard work, a notion gleaned from a culture that presents recreational drug use as the ideal antidote for the stresses of high achievement and success. Indeed, some students even report that their parents support their partying, so long as it is done “responsibly” and does not have immediate effects on academic or athletic performance. We see this most dramatically in the form of such rewards as a Spring Break trip to the Bahamas unchaperoned. Such trips are notorious for heavy drinking and other drug use.
What to do: If your teen pleads that stress-filled weeks of hard work deserve a reward, first acknowledge and praise your teen’s achievements. Point out that attaining academic goals carries intrinsic rewards that build far more confidence and satisfaction than a night of drinking. Support your teen by saying, “I am so proud of your efforts and hard work. I want you to relax and enjoy yourself in healthy and safe ways.” Mark appreciation of your teen’s efforts by offering to make a favorite meal, go to a favorite restaurant, host friends at your home, or plan a fun weekend activity of your teen’s choosing.
Teens often admit that they use alcohol to diminish the awkwardness and insecurity that they feel in social situations. If teens expect they will meet up with peers on whom they have crushes or with whom they would like to “hook up,” they use alcohol to temporarily ease their anxiety and facilitate interaction. As time goes on, however, many adolescents come to rely heavily on substances in social situations, creating a false perception that socializing without the crutch of a psychoactive substance is impossible. We hear about this phenomenon too often from addicts who spent their formative years in the haze of alcohol and other drugs. Once in recovery, they struggle to learn how to face the risks and fears of socializing substance-free.
What to do: Talk to your teens about how normal it is to feel self-conscious in new social situations. Let them know that the only way to overcome this feeling is to experience the awkwardness without reaching for alcohol or marijuana or any other drug. The feeling will diminish with practice, as they become more comfortable with themselves. Tell teens that if they drink to take away the feeling, the feeling just goes underground, but does not decrease, and eventually they will always have to have a drink in order to feel normal. This is how addiction gets started.
Substances and sexual behavior
Many students report that “hook-ups” occur exclusively under the influence of alcohol and/or other drugs. The combination of substances and teenage sexuality can lead to damaging experiences, both psychological and physical, that leave teens feeling uncomfortable and unsafe. Potentially traumatizing experiences include engaging in unprotected sex; having cloudy, upsetting memories of important emotional events; and sexual assault. Indeed, the majority of sexual experiences that students report to us as upsetting and/or regrettable involve alcohol.
What to do: Talk to your teen about your hopes that for her sex will be a choice she makes when she is ready and that it will be private, intimate, safe, and consensual. Explain that alcohol and other drugs not only suppress or mask those qualities that make sex a positive experience, but also are highly likely to make a sexual encounter unsafe emotionally and physically.
The medicine cabinet
Many students report widespread experimentation with prescription drugs in their social milieu. These drugs are easy to access and are often perceived as both glamorous and innocuous. Some younger students report being pressured to sell their prescriptions for ADHD medications, such as Ritalin and Adderall, to older peers. Among those who do not have ADHD, Ritalin and Adderall are viewed as performance-enhancing drugs essential to achieving front-runner status in the academic arena.
What to do: Talk with your teen about the hazards of prescription drug abuse. Not only is prescription drug abuse emotionally dangerous, it is a fast route to addiction and it is illegal. Support your teen in developing the confidence to do his best academically without the aid of prescription medication. Make sure you give positive attention to your teen at times other than simply around notable achievements or performance. Be very concerned if mood-altering prescription drugs are missing from your medicine chest. Closely monitor your teen’s prescription medications and ask the school nurse to assist in their safekeeping if your teen needs access to them at school.
Students today engage in drinking games popularized by college students, the sole objectives of which are to grow intoxicated quickly and intensely. Teens often believe that having a high tolerance and being able to stay in these games longer than others is a sign of strength, rather than of one’s susceptibility to alcoholism. As a result, teens who play these games expose their brains to toxic levels of alcohol as often as twice weekly (usually Friday and Saturday nights). This puts them at alarmingly high risk of developing alcoholism. In addition, because of the fast pace and quantity of alcohol, teens often experience alcohol poisoning and/or blackouts, both of which are extremely dangerous to teens’ immediate and long-term health.
What to do: Talk with your teen about the dangers of drinking games. State plainly your expectation that she steer clear of drinking games not only to keep her from getting swept up in them, but to protect her from exposure to the behavior and consequences of others’ heavy drinking. In particular, emphasize that binge drinking puts a person at great risk for developing alcoholism.
To obtain a copy of this book and read more about how to respond effectively to these risky situations, contact Katherine Prudente or Kate Miller at 212.838.0044.