BY CHERYL ECKWAHL, M.S. ED., THERAPIST FOR FAMILY SERVICES
Adolescent use of illegal drugs and alcohol has been a concern of society and parents for decades. A survey found that among 12-17 year olds, 1.1 million met the criteria for dependence on illicit drugs, and almost a million met the criteria for dependence on alcohol. There are 10.4 million current drinkers age 12-20, and nearly half engage in binge drinking. A 2005 survey revealed that 75% of 12th graders had used alcohol, and 57% had been drunk. Forty five percent of the same group had used marijuana. Marijuana is the most widely used illegal drug and of the teens who use drugs, 60% use only marijuana. Surveys show that as the perception of risk of harm from marijuana use has sharply declined, the availability has greatly increased. A reading of local police reports indicates underage drinkers involved in drunk driving arrests and the continues to increase numbers of adolescents using illegal drugs.
Although the most recent survey by White House Office of National Drug Control Policy found a slight overall decrease in adolescent consumption of alcohol and illegal drugs, use in young women has increased in the past two years. The survey also points to areas of concern because of high rates of use of prescription painkillers such as vicodin and oxycontin.
Consequences of this use for both boys and girls include an increase in traffic accidents and drunken driving fatalities, risky sexual practices that lead to pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, delinquent behavior and crime, and school related problems, including failing grades and suspension. Persistent use can also result in the failure to achieve the developmental goals of adolescence, including strong identity formation, emotional and intellectual growth, setting career goals, and forming strong personal relationships.
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable and hard to reach because they have difficulty projecting the consequences of their actions into the future. For example, early substance use increases the likelihood of developing future use disorders. A teen who starts drinking at 13 is four times more likely to develop dependence than someone who starts at age 20. When use progresses to abuse, negative consequences multiply, with involvement in the criminal justice system, family discord, and association with drug using peers.
The developmental stage of adolescents leaves them particularly susceptible to the use of illegal substances and alcohol. When asked, teens say they use for a variety of reasons, including peer pressure. Their desire to fit in is strong and as risk takers, their judgment is often clouded by the actions of their group. They are establishing their independence and want to act grown up. They also say they use to relax, to relieve boredom, to reduce anxiety in social situations, to ease pain and to deal with depression.
Parents may feel that their adolescents want nothing to do with their advice and therefore may be reluctant to initiate discussions about drugs and alcohol. Parents sometimes think that they cannot counter the larger social forces pushing their children. The slogan of the current campaign, "Parents: The Anti- Drug", emphasizes the power of parents to influence their teens. Relationships with family are of critical importance in preventing or dealing with drug use. Some of the suggestions of the anti-drug campaign include giving children clear messages about not using drugs or alcohol and letting them know that this stand is based on love and concern. Parents need to learn what peer pressures the teen is dealing with and help them find ways of dealing with these. For example, develop drug or alcohol refusal skills by role playing some lines to use in risky situations. Other suggestions include supervising teen activities, staying involved with the teen’s friends and their families, and encouraging healthy activities like sports and school activities. The essential thing is listening to the teen, recognizing that even small talk helps, and taking every opportunity to build the relationship. Keeping the lines of communication open is sometimes difficult when faced with trying situations, but parents should resist the urge to threaten or badger which often results in the opposite of the desired action. An excellent guideline for parents is to emphasize the things the child does right by consistently rewarding good behavior
while avoiding the urge to be critical.
Some warning signs that might indicate a teen is experiencing some difficulty with substance use include:
• Sudden changes in personality without another known cause.
• Loss of interest in once favorite hobbies, sports, or other activities.
• Sudden decline in performance or attendance at school or work.
• Changes in friends and reluctance to talk about new friends.
• Deterioration of personal grooming habits.
• Difficulty in paying attention, forgetfulness.
• Sudden aggressive behavior, irritability, nervousness, or giddiness.
• Increased secretiveness, heightened sensitivity to inquiry.
Be alert to changes in behavior and appearance and when they last more than a few days or are extreme, initiate a conversation with the teen expressing love for them and concern about what is observed. If parents feel their adolescent has a substance use problem, find a professional counselor who will listen to them and help them find resources. A screening or assessment for drug and alcohol use is helpful in determining the level of the adolescent’s involvement. Parents can also contact school counselors, family doctors, pastors, or adolescent prevention professionals for assistance.
An excellent Internet source for parents is www.theantidrug.com, which addresses a variety of issues dealing with basic information, prevention and problem solving. Other resources used in this article include publications by the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at www.samhsa.gov and information at www.athealth.com/Consumer/adolescentsufacts.html.
Cheryl Eckwahl M.S. Ed. is a therapist for Family Service of the Chautauqua Region’s Partners for Children program