Substance use is problematic and extensive in its many forms: alcohol use, cocaine use, hallucinogen use, heroin use, inhalant use, marijuana use, methamphetamine use, sedative-hypnotics, anxiolytics use, etc.
Different types of drugs are being synthesized on a regular basis and users are finding more and more creative ways to use and conceal them. How can parents be expected to keep their teens from using drugs and alcohol? What are the best forms of risk management?
Teen substance use usually starts off casually, but even minor effects cannot be unlearned once the brain begins associating drugs with pleasure. Continued social use seems acceptable because economic costs are minimal and drugs are not yet interfering with normal activities. As more time passes, though, the consequences of use begin to increase. The user feels compelled to use as a means of feeling normal, and the path to addiction is well underway.
Using Developmental Models to Understand Teen Substance Abuse
We can use a developmental model of human growth to analyze teen substance use. By examining addiction as it relates to maturity and development, we can accurately assess and understand teen substance use, prevention and management. Developmental models incorporate all seven areas of human development: moral, cognitive, social, physical, emotional, psychosexual, and temperamental. These seven areas are further broken down into four major developmental tasks: fertility, friends, family, and future. “Fertility” relates to the adolescent preoccupation with sexual identity and body image. “Friends” relates to the adolescent preoccupation with self-identity. “Family” relates to the adolescent preoccupation with independence and separation from relatives. “Future” relates to vocational selection, and value clarification. All areas are affected by addiction and should be considered when planning for risk management.
Each period of adolescence is characterized by defining features that can be altered by drug use. Early adolescence is defined by a child’s first attempts at separation. Children recognize that parents are non-perfect beings, and rebel against them in response. This period is also characterized by strong identification with peers, abstract thinking, verbalization of values, mood swings, difficulty with impulse control, and insecurity about body changes. Middle adolescence is defined by the child’s peak rebellious stage. They are transitioning from parental to peer direction, have increased sexual interest, increased cognitive abilities and need for clarification, and overall difficulty with postponement of gratification. Late adolescence is defined by a firming up of self-identity. Children in this stage have an increased ability to express emotions and postpone gratification. They also experience increased emotional stability and self-reliance, and a resolved relationship with authority figures.
What Roles do Parents Play?
Without proper parental guidance and structure in early adolescence, teens could end up with persistent anger, confusion, and doubt about their beliefs. They might engage in self-harming behaviors, or join the rebellious subculture. They could experience ambivalence about separation and fail to flourish as an individual. They will likely have an inability to learn from experiences and deal with abstractions. They will probably be confused, frustrated, and isolated. Lack of parental guidance in middle adolescence often leads to direct struggles with guardians, excessive self-involvement, and an inability to postpone gratification. These teens will constantly seek approval from their peers and have poorly defined moral values, as well as an inability to evaluate situations appropriately. Lack of parental guidance in late adolescence can lead to disturbances in their adult life, such as unresolved relationship and identity issues, stunted self-expression, persistent emotional instability and lags in personal responsibility. These teens may have difficulty in defining their vocational goals, as well as their moral, religious, and sexual values.
Parents can use knowledge of these developmental milestones to appropriately define their parenting style. It is necessary to establish reasonable boundaries between security and freedom, as well as to set limitations that are clear, age-appropriate, and growth-oriented. Adolescents tend to develop a view of parental figures that is inspired by lessons learned in school, their peers, the media, police/other figures of public authority, their role models, and of course the way they see their own parents acting on a regular basis. They develop a view of other adolescents that is associated with raw emotion, fun, risk-taking, thrill seeking, experimentation, autonomy, and the development of a new identity. When choosing whether or not to experiment with drugs, adolescents take both sides into consideration. They also, of course, consider variables such as drug availability, prior use, perceived risk and respect for societal norms.
Parental Enabling and Self-Doubt
The risk of experimentation increases with parental enabling, for example facilitating use through emotions put on display. Parental fear, anger, and over-protecting instincts have been known to cause rebellion in teenagers. Adolescents sense these strong feelings and push back against them. Additionally, stricter parents may cultivate performance anxiety in their teens, causing a fallback on drugs as a means to relieve that pressure.
Parental self-doubt can also sometimes indicate a soft stance on drug use. The pressure to keep adolescents safe in the midst of peer pressure is a harsh reality to face and some parents shy away from the responsibility. Parents often feel that the situation is hopeless. They think that all kids do drugs so it’s inevitable no matter what they do. They think they have no control over their children because of their perceived irrelevancy. They think their child is too trustworthy, too loving to get mixed up in the world of drugs. They think it’s better to keep secrets, shelter their children, do their work for them, and avoid conflict. These beliefs and behaviors must be coaxed away and replaced with a firm stance on drug use, along with consequences for behaviors. These consequences should be consistently applied in a timely manner. They should be basic, related, and escalate based on the value of the behavior.
How Two Dreams Helps
Two Dreams emphasizes the importance of family therapy, in particular the significance of strong communication between parents and their children. We stress that teaching adolescents requires more than just setting consequences for actions; it requires role modeling, reinforcement, encouragement, and patience. Teens must be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them; otherwise they are likely to seek release, potentially in the form of drugs.
Barthwell, Andrea. “Parents Academy: Identifying Risky Behaviors” PowerPoint presentation. Two Dreams, Oak Park, IL. 20 Aug 2015.