Drug and alcohol abuse – “Parent for prevention”

Q&A with Samantha Nolte, admissions director for Phoenix House

his article is part of a Series that explores parenting issues related to bringing up healthy and well-adjusted teens and tweens. The series attempts to unravel the mystery of how to raise middle- and high-schoolers without losing your sanity.

Question: What substances are popular now among teens?

Answer: Adolescents have become more engaged in the opioid epidemic and often engage in prescription pain killer use and heroin use. Cannabis has always been a leading drug with adolescents.

Q. What are the newer drugs out there that parents need to be aware of?

A. There are several new synthetic drugs such as spice (called synthetic marijuana, but chemically very different), bath salts (a synthetic stimulant and hallucinogen), and dabs (super concentrated THC). They all cause different effects but are extremely harmful given the synthetic ingredients they are made of. They are appealing to teens because they can be difficult to detect in drug screens.

Q. What's the best way for parents to approach the topic of alcohol and other drugs with their teens?

(Nolte referred to Phoenix House reference materials, from which the following is taken)

Discussions with your kids about substance use and abuse will differ based on whether you are trying to prevent them from starting to use alcohol and other drugs, stop them from experimenting, or seeking help once they’ve developed a problem. Here are tips to help you “parent for prevention” by discussing alcohol and other drug rules before your kids ever use.

Family Behavior Policies

• Express an appropriate level of concern about alcohol and other drug use. Has there been a history of use by a family member? Do you simply want to make sure your family’s future stays drug-free?

• Spell out your expectations regarding alcohol and other drug use, rather than waiting to bring up the topic after your teen has begun to experiment (most do) or after they’ve developed a problem.

• Bring the family together for a meeting. State your position on issues such as alcohol and other drug use, sex and relationships, or even screen time (Internet, television, PlayStation/Wii, etc.).

• Explain what is allowed, what is not, and what the consequences will be if rules are broken. Your teen may not agree with you, but it is fair for you to ask them to follow these rules.

• Negotiate on less important rules. Buy-in now will make it easier for teens to follow the rules later.

Q. What are some warning signs of alcohol and other drug abuse? When, if ever, is it "normal" teen experimentation and when is it something more serious?

A. Maybe another teen’s parent has called you, or maybe you’ve heard others talking. Maybe you’ve found drug paraphernalia or empty bottles in your teen’s room or bag again. Maybe your teen has come home drunk or high once too often. It’s time to take action. But what should you do?

Don’t Wait: While initial alcohol and other drug use may be a voluntary decision, as use progresses, it becomes less and less of a choice. Addiction is a chronic brain disease, and parents should never shy away from getting their child help as early as possible. You don’t ignore other health problems — like a sore throat that might be strep or a sore ankle that could be sprained. Given the potential consequences of addiction, signs of substance use and abuse should be addressed aggressively and early on.

Talk to Others: Let your social network know what is going on. Chances are, someone will help you connect with someone else who has “been there and done that.”

Confirm Your Suspicions: Adolescence is a time of many changes — physical and emotional. Sometimes, behaviors or physical changes that seem like substance use or abuse can be symptoms of a medical or psychiatric problem. Confirm what’s going on by giving your teen a drug test or seeking out an assessment by a professional.

Involve Others: Consider letting your teen’s school know what is going on, especially if you think your son or daughter will not be penalized. The school is likely to recommend places for treatment. School counselors may be able to provide extra assistance or support to your teen.

Don’t Assume It Will Just Stop: Some professionals believe that a small portion of young adults “mature out” of their problematic substance use and abuse, but this is rare. Don’t assume your teen will fall into this minority. While you are waiting for your teen to “mature out,” they may suffer terrible consequences.

Q. What should parents do if they think their child has used alcohol or other drugs?

A.• Don’t try to talk with your teens while they are intoxicated. Wait until they are sober.

• Avoid assumptions. Stick to observed signs and logical conclusions: “When you came home last night, you smelled like beer, you were wobbling around, and you were slurring your words — it was clear that you had been drinking alcohol.”

• Refer back to the family rules and consequences you have previously discussed.

• If you have not previously developed a clear family policy on alcohol and other drugs:

a. Acknowledge that you have never really talked about this issue before.

b. Set rules and consequences for experimenting with alcohol and other drugs.

c. Ensure that your kid is committed to following your rules.

d. Impose a consequence for this first infraction (although you may not have previously spelled out the rules, most teens know that they are not supposed to experiment with alcohol and other drugs).

Questions for your teen:

• How often do you drink alcohol/get high?

• Who do you drink or use drugs with?

• Under what circumstances?

• When your friends are using, do you feel obligated to use, too?

• If your friends ask you to participate, do you feel comfortable saying no?

• Can you give me an example of what you will do/say when offered alcohol or other drugs?

Q. How can a parent discuss his or her own alcohol and other drug use?

A. If you never got drunk or high in your younger days, tell your teen the truth, and explain your reasons. If, however, you did use in the past, you’ve got choices. There is no one right way to respond. It depends on your relationship with your teen, your own sense of how your teen will understand your story, and your boundaries.

The options include:

• Don’t admit to anything. Some people prefer to lie, while others are evasive and turn the question back towards the teen (“Why do you want to know?” or “Isn’t the past less important than the present?”)

• Minimize your use. For example, you might say you tried alcohol or other drugs once or twice, but didn’t like it.

• Take responsibility for your past use. If you choose this route — and many today do — you should:

a. Not glorify past use (teens can interpret this as permission to use).

b. Be clear about any problems it caused you or friends.

c. If referring to marijuana in particular, mention that marijuana today is much stronger than it was when you were younger, so the risks are not the same.

d. If you have family members who had alcohol or other drug problems, note that addiction is a disease that has a high degree of hereditability, similar to diabetes or heart disease. If heredity is a factor, your child needs to be particularly cautious.

Q. What are some other ways parents can help their teens stay away from alcohol and other drugs?

Family Together Time: Make time for family dinners as often as possible. It may seem challenging, but after a while, it will become routine and enjoyable. Make sure everyone helps prepare the meal and helps clean up afterward. Use this “together time” to talk about your child’s day and get updates on important issues — such as whether they have been offered alcohol or drugs.

Extracurricular Activities: Unscheduled after-school and weekend hours are often the times when teens get into trouble. Keep your kids involved with enjoyable activities that keep them busy; if school, sports, or other standard activities are not appealing to your teen, think about volunteer opportunities or after-school jobs. These activities provide young people with a chance to become more responsible, work alongside adults and develop new skills. Teens and parents may even volunteer together to build their relationship in a fun and neutral zone.

Be An Aware Parent: Show up to your teen’s activities, even when they don’t expect it. Make it a point to get to know your teen’s friends and their parents. If there’s going to be a party, call to see if a parent will be home. Use Facebook or Twitter to help connect with other parents who want to stay on top of their teen’s activities. Make sure teens call you from a landline to let you know their whereabouts, and insist on quick callbacks when you call them on their cell phone.

Provide Teens With Easy Outs: Teens don’t want to be embarrassed in front of their peers. So help them come up with “easy outs” when offered alcohol or other drugs.

• Teach excuses, such as “I can’t drink alcohol, use cigarettes or other drugs because my parents do drug tests” or “I can’t get high because I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow and they might need a urine sample.”

• Create a family “code.” Your teen could tell their peers that they have to call home, and tell you a code phrase such as “I’m not ready to come home yet” to let you know that they are in an uncomfortable situation. This allows your teen to save face while getting them out of the situation.



Melanie Plenda, a longtime contributor to Parenting New Hampshire and other publica­tions statewide, is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Keene.

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