Substance abuse expert says teens experimenting with alcohol, drugs not inevitable
Substance abuse expert Jennifer Michaels urges parents to relinquish the idea that all teens experiment and that drinking and drug use is inevitable.
“Actually, most kids are not engaging in substance abuse,” said Michaels, who heads the Brien Center, a mental health and substance abuse treatment organization in Pittsfield.
Cigarette smoking among teens has decreased from 40 percent in 1975 to 20 percent in 2009 and pot smoking has also declined substantially during that period, she said.Michaels said educational campaigns to teach children about the risks of drug and alcohol abuse have had a positive effect. However, she said, many subscribe to a myth that in Europe, teens are less likely to abuse alcohol because parents often let their children have a drink with dinner before the legal drinking age.
“The reality is that most European countries have teen intoxication rates that are much higher than in the United States and they have a higher rate of cirrhosis in adults,” she said.
Michaels said it’s important to talk to children before they reach their teen years about drugs and alcohol, when many will face pressures to experiment at parties and on outings with friends.
“We need to be parents to our kids, not their friends,” she said. Michaels said parents must adopt a “team” approach and make sure both parents are on the same page in terms of what to tell children about drugs and alcohol.
“You need to provide a consistent, specific message,” she said. Parents should not “glorify” drugs and alcohol and share with their kids all the crazy things they did as teens. They should also look at their current behaviors, she said.
“Have my kids ever seen me drunk?” Michaels said. “If so, I am sending them a message that it’s OK to use.”
Parents should try to have casual conversations with their children about
substance use and abuse, should not lecture, and should be aware of their body language when talking. They should avoid making threats for bad behavior and shaming a teen if he or she gets drunk.
“All of that closes the door to honest, open discussion,” she said.
From the ages of 8 to 12, parents should be looking for “teachable moments,” to talk to young people about drug and alcohol abuse.
“Kids at this age love to talk,” she said. “They love reasons and rules. Give them the reasons why they should not do this stuff and try to help them with the whys. Have casual conversations. Do some role playing and tell them if they go to someone’s house and get in the car and the mom smells like alcohol, they should say they do not want to be in the car with someone who is drinking. Tell them how to get out and get to a safe place.”
From the ages of 13 to 17, many teens will already have experimented with alcohol, drugs, pot or all three.
Michaels said it is imperative to talk with kids this age about the dangers of drinking and driving and the legal and health issues they may face if they drink or do drugs and drive. Teens need to know that their parents will come get them, at any time and anywhere, if they — or a friend who has the car keys — is too drunk to drive.
“Let your kids know that you will get them, no questions asked,” she said. “You won’t talk about it at the moment. You will deal with it later. Let them know that their safety is your number one concern.”
Parents should get to know their kid’s friends and before dropping a teen off at a party, should go in and “check out” the scene.
“Find out if there is alcohol there, if the parents are going to be there,” she said. Parents should strive to provide fun alternative activities for teens so drug and alcohol use becomes a less desirable option.
“If it does happen, provide a consequence that is meaningful,” she said.
Grounding a 15-year-old for three months who has experimented with alcohol is a “non- useful, harsh, and excessive” punishment, she said.
Above all, keep the lines of communication open, Michaels said.
“Keep your sense of humor with your kids and a sense of fun into their teen years,” she said. “If you’re not talking to your kids, then who is and what are they telling them?”
— SANDRA DIAS