It’s a staggering statistic: Teenagers can make a life-altering decision with drugs and alcohol in a matter of just 5-10 seconds. Students face hundreds of daily decisions, and, in an instant, that one moment can affect their lives forever. So, what can parents and educators do to prepare young people before they face a situation involving drugs and alcohol?
THE PROBLEM, BY THE NUMBERS
Brian Dew, Ph.D., department chair of Counseling and Psychological Services at The College of Education and Human Development at Georgia State University, offers a plethora of research-backed information on the current drug trafficking market; rising trends, such as the growing usage of vaping and e-cigarettes; and the impacts these trends have on students.
According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS), “Early drug abuse correlates with substance abuse problems later in life, and the most significant increases in destructive behavior appear to take place among older teens and young adults.” Approximately 8% of 12- to 17-year-olds nationwide report using drugs in the last month, with 21% of eighth-graders having tried illicit drugs at least once (NCDAS). By the time they’re in twelfth grade, that number has jumped to a staggering 46% of teens (NCDAS).
The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics says that “alcohol is the most commonly abused substance among teens and young adults,” with 25% of eighth-graders having abused alcohol at least once. Marijuana is also commonly used, with nearly 7% of high school seniors using it daily, and 43% having tried it at least once (NCDAS). Surprisingly, twelfth-graders are 82% more likely to use marijuana in their lifetime than they are to smoke a cigarette (NCDAS). Finally, opioid abuse is wreaking havoc in communities, with “overdose deaths due to opioids [increasing] 500% among 15- to 24-year-olds since 1999” (NCDAS).
Source: National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics
While these statistics are both eye-opening and frightening, parents need not feel hopeless or defeated in tackling this tough issue. Understanding why young people make the choice to try drugs and alcohol can better help parents have important conversations with their children about this issue.
IDENTITY VERSUS ROLE CONFUSION
Dr. Dew asserts that when students are faced with the decision on whether or not to engage in risky behaviors with controlled substances, students are often within a fragile, vulnerable developmental stage, or, as the highly-praised psychologist Erik Erikson notes, the stage of Identity versus Role Confusion.
In this developmental stage, typically around the middle school/early high school years, students are often sifting through big questions like “Who am I?” and “What do I value?” and “Do I matter?” They are beginning to feel confused or insecure about themselves, their significance, and how they fit in with their peers and society as a whole.
According to Erikson, an understanding of who you are and your value in our world is critical. It is key for developing a sense of direction in life, a drive, an ability to feel meaning in your everyday life, a purpose. These are big truths to be sifting through as a 12- to 16-year old.
When a student undergoes role confusion, problems may arise. There’s an inherent conflict: the inability to understand who you are and your place in the world. Often, as Dr. Dew explains, when students crumble to peer pressure or make the wrong choice in that five-second decision, they find themselves in a place of role confusion desperately searching for any “quick fix” or “ticket” to feel as though they belong.
MADE WITH PURPOSE
When considering adolescent identity and belonging, Christian parents and educators are reminded of the God we serve and the community we operate within. Every day, whether in chapel, interacting with teachers, or leading on the field or stage, students are not only reminded of who they are, but also whose they are - a child of God, a masterpiece made with intention and purpose. Every day at Christian schools like Mount Paran Christian School, students hear these truths and are shown that who they are is important, that they matter, and that they belong.
Dr. Dew offers parents guidance for properly talking to their children about this weighty topic. The tools he offers are an incredible asset on how to approach this tough conversation, while also providing a safe, responsive place for children. It is never too early - or too late - to start these conversations.
9 TAKEAWAYS TO HELP TEENS AVOID DRUGS AND ALCOHOL
Take advantage of organic opportunities to discuss drug-related issues with your child(ren).
If you have addiction in your family of origin, consider sharing this reality and any concerns with your child(ren).
Develop a family “safe-word” or emoji in cases of emergency. Allow your child to use you as an excuse if they need an “out” of a potentially dangerous situation.
Kids may make bad decisions but they are not “bad kids.” Keep in mind the multiple types of stress a child may be experiencing. Look for ways to encourage positive coping mechanisms, and encourage your child to seek out available resources.
Be knowledgeable about current drug threats.
Be honest in response to your child’s questions and be open to their thoughts, feelings, and reactions.
Scare tactics are not the most helpful strategies in deterring adolescent substance use.
Be aware of technology’s role in drug distribution/sales.
Increase awareness of how we, as adults, use alcohol as a method of mood alteration.
Perhaps the greatest protection we can provide for children is reminding them that simply who they are in God’s view - beyond all the achievements and popularity and athletic pursuits - will always be enough.
Brian Dew, Ph.D. is the department chair of Counseling and Psychological Services at The College of Education and Human Development at Georgia State University.
Sarah Streitmatter, M.Ed., MA, is a guidance and college counselor at Mount Paran Christian School. Previously, she simultaneously worked as a school college counselor and pursued an M.Ed. in School Counseling with a focus on College Advising and an MA in Psychological Counseling at Columbia University. She received a BA from Wake Forest University and served as the Presidential Fellow at Wake Forest in their Office of Personnel and Career Development.
For additional reading and ideas for conversation starters on tackling tough topics with tweens and teens, consider 14 Talks by Age Fourteen: The Essential Conversations You Need to Have with Your Kids Before They Start High School by Michelle Icard.
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