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Teens’ Abuse of Drugs, Alcohol and Tobacco: What Parents Can Do

***Help your adolescent avoid drugs***

Many teenagers experiment with drugs, putting their health and safety at risk — but adolescent drug abuse isn't inevitable. You can help prevent adolescent drug abuse by talking to your adolescent about the consequences of using drugs and the importance of making healthy choices.

Why teenagers abuse drugs—

Various factors may contribute to adolescent drug abuse, from insecurity and self-doubt to a desire for social acceptance. Teenagers often feel indestructible and may not consider the consequences of their actions, leading them to take potentially dangerous risks — such as abusing legal or illegal drugs.

Common risk factors for adolescent drug abuse include:
  • A family history of substance abuse
  • Depression
  • Drug availability
  • Early aggressive behavior
  • Feelings of social rejection
  • Lack of parental supervision
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poverty

Consequences of adolescent drug abuse—

Adolescent drug abuse can have a number of negative consequences, including:
  • Concentration problems. Use of drugs, such as marijuana, may affect the parts of the brain that control memory, motivation, attention and learning — making it more difficult to learn and perform complex tasks.
  • Drug dependence. Teenagers who abuse drugs are at increased risk of serious drug use later in life.
  • Impaired driving. Driving under the influence of any drug can impair a driver's motor skills, reaction time and judgment — putting the driver, his or her passengers, and others on the road at risk.
  • Lack of motivation. Drug use may lead a teen to lose interest in or become indifferent about what happens at school or in other areas of his or her life.
  • Serious health problems. In high doses, Ecstasy can interfere with the body's ability to regulate temperature and cause liver, kidney and heart failure. Use of methamphetamine can cause heart and neurological damage, psychotic behavior and aggression. Chronic use of inhalants can cause brain or nerve damage and harm the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys. In addition, abuse of prescription or over-the-counter medications can cause depression, respiratory distress, cardiac distress and seizures.
  • Sexual activity. Teenagers who abuse drugs are more likely to have poor judgment, which can result in unplanned and unsafe sex.

Talking about adolescent drug abuse—

It can be difficult to talk to your adolescent about drug abuse. Start by choosing a comfortable time and setting. If you're anxious, share your feelings with your adolescent. You might also consider sharing the responsibility with another nurturing adult in your adolescent's life.

When you discuss adolescent drug abuse, you might:
  • Ask your adolescent's views. Listen to your adolescent's opinions — which may differ from your own — and questions about drug use. Encourage your adolescent to talk by asking open-ended questions, such as "Tell me what you think about ______."
  • Be ready to discuss your own drug use. Think ahead about how you'll respond if your adolescent asks about your own drug use. If you chose not to use drugs, explain why. If you did use drugs, share what the experience taught you.
  • Consider media messages. Some television programs, movies, Web sites or songs glamorize or trivialize drug use. Talk about what your adolescent has seen or heard.
  • Discuss reasons not to abuse drugs. Avoid scare tactics. Emphasize how drug use can affect things important to your adolescent — such as sports, driving, health and appearance. Explain that even a teen can develop a drug problem.
  • Plan specific ways to resist peer pressure. Brainstorm with your adolescent about how to respond to offers of drugs. Suggest that your adolescent try saying, "No thanks," or "I don't do drugs because it could get me kicked off the team." Your adolescent also might offer friends a socially acceptable alternative activity, such as watching a movie.

Don't be afraid that talking about adolescent drug abuse will plant ideas in your adolescent's head. Conversations about drug abuse won't tempt your adolescent to try drugs. Instead, talking about drug abuse lets your adolescent know your views and understand what you expect of him or her.

Other preventive strategies—

In addition to talking to your adolescent, consider other strategies to prevent adolescent drug abuse:
  • Establish rules and consequences. Make it clear that you won't tolerate drug abuse. Rules might include leaving a party where drug abuse occurs and not riding in a car with a driver who's been abusing drugs. Agree on the consequences of breaking the rules ahead of time — and enforce them consistently.
  • Keep an eye on prescription drugs. Ask your doctor if any medications prescribed for your family have a potential for abuse. Take an inventory of all prescription and over-the-counter medications in your home and keep them out of easily accessible places — such as the medicine cabinet. If your adolescent needs to take medication during school hours, find out if it can be stored in the school's health office rather than in your adolescent's locker.
  • Know your adolescent's activities. Pay attention to your adolescent's whereabouts. Find out what adult-supervised activities your adolescent is interested in and encourage him or her get involved.
  • Know your adolescent's friends. If your adolescent's friends abuse drugs, your adolescent may feel pressure to experiment, too. Get to know your adolescent's friends and their moms and dads.
  • Provide support. Offer praise and encouragement when your adolescent succeeds, whether at school or at home. A strong bond between you and your adolescent may help prevent your adolescent from abusing drugs.
  • Set a good example. Don't abuse drugs yourself.

Recognizing the warning signs of adolescent drug abuse—

Be aware of possible red flags, such as: 
  • A hostile or uncooperative attitude
  • A sudden or extreme change in friends, eating habits, sleeping patterns, physical appearance or school performance
  • An unexplained disappearance of household money
  • An unusual chemical or medicine smell on your adolescent or in your adolescent's room
  • Empty drug or medicine containers or drug paraphernalia in your adolescent's room
  • Lost interest in favorite activities
  • Secrecy about actions or possessions
  • Visits to pro-drug Web sites

Seeking help for adolescent drug abuse—

If you suspect that your adolescent is abusing drugs, talk to him or her. Avoid accusations. Instead, ask your adolescent what's going on in his or her life and encourage him or her to be honest. If your adolescent admits to abusing drugs, let him or her know that you're disappointed. Be sure to enforce the consequences you've established so that your adolescent understands that using drugs will always result in a loss of privileges. Explain to your adolescent ways that he or she can help regain your lost trust, such as improving grades. If you think your adolescent is involved in significant drug use, contact a doctor, counselor or other health care provider who specializes in drug problems.

Remember, it's never too soon to start talking to your adolescent about drug abuse. The conversations you have today can help your adolescent make healthy choices in the future.

***Talking to your adolescent about drinking***

Moms and dads often underestimate how early adolescent drinking starts, the amount of alcohol teenagers drink and the risks involved. But adolescent drinking isn't inevitable. You can encourage your adolescent to avoid alcohol by talking to him or her about the risks of adolescent drinking and the importance of making good decisions.

Why teenagers drink—

Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to alcohol use. The physical changes of puberty may make your adolescent feel self-conscious and more likely to take risks to fit in or please others — such as experiment with alcohol. Also, your adolescent may have trouble understanding that his or her actions have consequences.

Common risk factors for adolescent drinking include:
  • A history of behavior problems
  • Family problems, such as conflict or parental alcohol abuse
  • Increased stress at home or school
  • Transitions, such as the move from middle school to high school or getting a driver's license

Consequences of adolescent drinking—

Whatever causes a teen to drink, the consequences may be the same. For example, adolescent drinking can lead to:
  • Alcohol dependence. People who begin drinking as young teenagers are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than are people who wait until they're adults to drink, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  • Alcohol-related traffic accidents. Alcohol-related accidents are a leading cause of adolescent deaths. Adolescent drowning, suicides and murders also have been linked with alcohol use.
  • Being a victim of violent crime. Alcohol-related crimes may include rape, assault and robbery.
  • School problems. Teenagers who drink tend to have more academic and conduct problems than do teenagers who don't drink. Also, drinking can lead to temporary or permanent suspension from sports and other extracurricular activities.
  • Sexual activity. Teenagers who drink tend to become sexually active earlier and have sex more often than do teenagers who don't drink. Teenagers who drink are also more likely to have unprotected sex than are teenagers who don't drink.

Research also shows that adolescent drinking may harm brain development.

Talking about adolescent drinking—

It can be tough to talk about adolescent drinking. You may be unsure of what to say, and your adolescent may try to dodge the conversation. To increase your odds of having a meaningful discussion, choose a time when you and your adolescent are relaxed. Don't worry about covering everything at once. If you talk often, you may have a greater impact on your adolescent than if you have only a single discussion.

When you talk about adolescent drinking, you might:
  • Ask your adolescent's views. Find out what your adolescent knows and thinks about alcohol.
  • Be prepared to discuss your own drinking. Your adolescent may ask if you drank alcohol when you were a teen. If you chose not to drink, explain why. If you chose to drink, you might share an example of a negative consequence of your drinking.
  • Debunk myths. Teenagers often think that drinking makes them popular or happy. Explain that alcohol is a depressant that also may cause sadness and anger.
  • Discuss reasons not to drink. Avoid scare tactics. Instead, explain the risks and appeal to your adolescent's self respect.
  • Plan ways to handle peer pressure. Brainstorm with your adolescent about how to respond to offers of alcohol. It might be as simple as saying, "No thanks," or "Do you have any soda?"
  • Share facts. Explain that alcohol is a powerful drug that slows the body and mind, and that anyone can develop an alcohol problem — even a teen.

The best way to encourage your adolescent to avoid drinking is to develop a strong relationship with him or her. Your support will help your adolescent build the self-esteem he or she needs to stand up to peer pressure — and be an incentive to live up to your expectations.

Other preventive strategies—

In addition to talking to your adolescent, consider other strategies to prevent adolescent drinking:
  • Encourage healthy friendships. If your adolescent's friends drink, your adolescent is more likely to drink, too. Get to know your adolescent's friends and their moms and dads.
  • Establish rules and consequences. Rules might include no underage drinking, leaving parties where alcohol is served and not riding in a car with a driver who has been drinking. Agree on the consequences of breaking the rules ahead of time — and enforce them consistently.
  • Know your adolescent's activities. Pay attention to your adolescent's plans and whereabouts. Encourage participation in supervised after-school and weekend activities.
  • Set an example. If you drink, do so in moderation and explain to your adolescent why it's OK for adults to drink sometimes. Explain some of the rules you follow, such as not drinking and driving. Don't serve alcohol to anyone who's underage.

Seeking help for adolescent drinking—

If you suspect that your adolescent has been drinking, talk to him or her. Enforce the consequences you've established so that your adolescent understands that using alcohol will always result in a loss of privileges. Accepting moderate use of alcohol may send the message that adolescent drinking isn't dangerous. If you think your adolescent may have a drinking problem, consider contacting a health care professional who specializes in alcohol problems.

Remember, it's never too soon to start talking to your adolescent about alcohol use. By broaching the topic, you'll help give your adolescent the guidance and support necessary to make good choices.

***Help teenagers stay smoke-free***

Adolescent smoking might begin innocently enough, but it can become a lifelong habit. In fact, most adult smokers began smoking as teenagers. Your best bet? Help your adolescent resist taking that first puff. These 10 tips can help.

1. Appeal to your adolescent's vanity— Smoking isn't glamorous. Remind your adolescent that smoking is a dirty, smelly habit. Smoking gives you bad breath. Smoking makes your clothes and hair smell, and it turns your teeth yellow. Smoking can leave you with a chronic cough and less energy for sports and other activities you enjoy.

2. Do the math— Smoking is expensive. Help your adolescent calculate the weekly, monthly or yearly cost of a pack-a-day smoking habit. You might compare the cost of smoking with that of electronic gadgets, clothes or other adolescent essentials.

3. Expect peer pressure— Friends who smoke can be convincing, but you can give your adolescent the tools he or she needs to refuse cigarettes. Rehearse how to handle tough social situations. It might be as simple as, "No thanks, I don't smoke." The more your adolescent practices this basic refusal, the more likely he or she will say no at the moment of truth.

4. Get involved— Take an active stance against adolescent smoking. Participate in local and school-sponsored anti-smoking campaigns. Support bans on smoking in public places. If your adolescent has already started smoking, avoid threats and ultimatums. Instead, be supportive. Find out why your adolescent is smoking — and then discuss ways to help your adolescent stop smoking, such as hanging out with friends who don't smoke or getting involved in new activities. Stopping adolescent smoking in its tracks is the best thing your adolescent can do for a lifetime of good health.

5. Predict the future— Teenagers tend to assume that bad things only happen to other people. But the long-term consequences of smoking — such as cancer, heart attack and stroke — may be all too real when your adolescent becomes an adult. Use loved ones, friends or neighbors who've been ill as real-life examples.

6. Say no to adolescent smoking— You may feel as if your adolescent doesn't hear a word you say, but say it anyway. Tell your adolescent that smoking isn't allowed. Your disapproval may have more impact than you think. Teenagers whose moms and dads set the firmest smoking restrictions tend to smoke less than do teenagers whose moms and dads don't set smoking limits. The same goes for teenagers who feel close to their moms and dads.

7. Set a good example— Adolescent smoking is more common among teenagers whose moms and dads smoke. If you don't smoke, keep it up. If you do smoke, quit — now. Ask your doctor about stop-smoking products and other ways to quit smoking. In the meantime, don't smoke in the house, in the car or in front of your adolescent, and don't leave cigarettes where your adolescent might find them. Explain how unhappy you are with your smoking and how difficult it is to quit.

8. Take addiction seriously— Most teenagers believe they can quit smoking anytime they want. But teenagers become just as addicted to nicotine as do adults, often quickly and at relatively low doses of nicotine. And once you're hooked, it's tough to quit.

9. Think beyond cigarettes— Smokeless tobacco, clove cigarettes (kreteks) and candy-flavored cigarettes (bidis) are sometimes mistaken as less harmful or addictive than are traditional cigarettes. Hookah smoking — smoking tobacco through a water pipe — is another alternative sometimes touted as safe. Don't let your adolescent be fooled. Like traditional cigarettes, these products are addictive and can cause cancer and other health problems. Many deliver higher concentrations of nicotine, carbon monoxide and tar than do traditional cigarettes.

10. Understand the attraction— Sometimes adolescent smoking is a form of rebellion or a way to fit in with a particular group of friends. Some teenagers light up in an attempt to lose weight or to feel better about themselves. Others smoke to feel cool or independent. To know what you're dealing with, ask your adolescent how he or she feels about smoking. Ask which of your adolescent's friend’s smoke. Applaud your adolescent's good choices, and talk about the consequences of bad choices. You might also talk with your adolescent about how tobacco companies try to influence ideas about smoking — such as paying actors to smoke in movies to create the perception that smoking is cool.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents


Anonymous said...

My step-son has been, admittedly, drinking and smoking marijuana. I believe he is abusing other drugs as well. His behavior has escalated to the point where his mother is offering to pay child support if he lives with us permanently, and my husband just doesn’t want to deal with him at all. He actually asked to be put into treatment, but the next day recanted. I feel that since he is still a minor and has asked (even if he did take it back), he should be admitted into alcohol and drug treatment. My husband, on the other hand feels that it will do him no good unless he wants to go. My way of thinking is that even if he is not willing to change, maybe seeing other people that are on drugs and how it has affected them will send a message. What do you think the best course of action would be?

Anonymous said...

I'm at my wits end with my 18 year old daughter. She is a very disfunctional relationship with a 21 year old boy that has a child, he does not take care of. They both are very strong into drugs and I kicked her out of my house. She lives with her father, but he has 2 small children and is in denial. She wont talk to me, hates me. I have to seek outside help. I fear it is the only solution to my problem.

Mark Hutten, M.A. said...


Hi Mark,

Ive emailed you a couple times in the past and got some excellent advice. But this time I'm at a total loss. Ive had issues in the past with my son(who is 14) and finding pot and different smoking devices, some homemade. I also had knowledge of him stealing xanax from my parents whom its prescribed to. At that time, we all sat down and talked about the stealing aspect of it and also the legal consequences of what could happen if caught with it and selling it. He was grounded (part of the house rules) and that was, what i thought, was the end of it. Well....yesterday i found yet another homemade "bowl" made out of an altoids tin and the metal from a pencil eraser! So, as ive learned, i stated that he made the choice to break the house rules again so he had to face the consequences. One of those is no cell phone. So i went on his phone and read his texts. I was floored. He apparently has been taking xanax when he goes to stay friday nights at his grandparents house. I thought it was strange that he was so gung-ho about staying there instead of being with his friends. He had text after text from people asking if he had gotten any more "zzz" or "bars". So now i have a dealer on my hands. I know the way to prevent this from happening again is to stop letting him go to my parents house, and yes, they know about this incident again. But i don't know how to get into his head that he cant be doing this! I don't feel as if grounding him is doing any good.

He is with his dad right now for the weekend. He asked him why he was doing this and he said it was so he had money to buy cigarettes! I assume to also buy weed. Again, thank you again for you help!!


Good question!

Here goes...

Until you have hard evidence that he is in possession of a controlled substance - you should not take any action.

Now for the tough part...

If you do find drugs in his possession, report this to the police.

Something tells me you already knew the answer to this one, but were afraid to do the right thing for fear of him getting a "record."

All the grounding and lecturing in the world will do very little in this case. Best to play hardball. If you choose to play softball, then...

...well, who knows what kind of MUCH WORSE trouble he will get into in the future!!!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

My daughter has been caught with weed and alcohol. I've called the cops and they talked with her and said they could bring some pictures of kids that have died from smoking weed because it was laced with heroin! It went in one ear and out the other! I take away her cellphone and ground her to the house and nothing works! She's back to drinking or smoking weed the first chance she gets! I found an empty bottle of alcohol under her bed and it's like she don't even care if she gets caught! She has her drivers permit and this last episode I took away her driving privalages and she had the nerve to tell me "oh well you will just have to take me everywhere if I don't get my liscence"! At this point she will be lucky if she even drives at age 18! I don't know what else to do nothing fazes her! She thinks nothing is wrong with her behavior and she don't care!

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