We don’t want to believe that our adolescent children will abuse any addictive substances, but we also know that it’s increasingly likely they will as they get older. By 12th grade, about two-thirds of students will have tried alcohol, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention; nearly half of all high school students report trying cigarettes, and two out of 10 will have used a prescription medication without a prescription.
Although substance use is a concern for all teens, some of them, in particular, will be at a higher risk for developing an addiction. Here’s what Dr. Rose Wesche, a researcher and an assistant professor in the department of human development and family science at Virginia Tech, told the New York Times about risk factors in youth:
“I think we know that there are internal, social and environmental reasons why some adolescents are more vulnerable to excessive alcohol use and risky alcohol use,” Dr. Wesche said. “Everything from your genes to your relationships with parents and peers to things in your environment like the availability of alcohol.”
But there are some things parents can do to lower that risk for their teenagers.
Help teens build their sense of self-efficacy
When Jessica Lahey, author of The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids In a Culture of Dependence, told her 14-year-old son that they’d be moving to a new state just as he was about to start high school, she realised the move itself could put him at a higher risk for addiction. A recovering alcoholic herself, Lahey writes for the New York Times that she knew the genetic component plus this stressful transition and the loss of so much of his social support system would put him even more at risk.
So Lahey writes that she set about building his sense of self-efficacy:
Self-efficacy, as defined by the psychologist Albert Bandura, is one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed; to regulate one’s thoughts, emotions and life; and to cope with challenges in a positive way. Self-efficacy is also the foundation for so many other positive traits, including resilience, grit, fortitude and perseverance. Self-efficacy is what gives kids a sense of control, agency and hope, even when the world around them feels out of control.
People with a weak sense of self-efficacy, on the other hand, tend to be pessimistic, inflexible, quick to give up, have low self-esteem, exhibit learned helplessness, get depressed, and feel fatalistic and hopeless. Not coincidentally, people who exhibit these traits are more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol to alleviate these negative feelings.
Kids build self-efficacy, self-esteem, and competence not just by being told they’ve done a great job at something — instead, they build it by trying new things, tackling new challenges, experiencing some setbacks, trying again, and succeeding. Give them some age-appropriate tasks or chores to take ownership of in order to help push them toward new successes they can be proud of.
We also shouldn’t go overboard with our praise, but when we do offer it up, we should get in the habit of praising the effort they made over the outcome of their work. In practice, that looks like saying something like, “I’m proud of you for showing up for Zoom class every day and working hard, even during a pandemic,” rather than, “Good job acing that test!”
Kids with a strong sense of self-efficacy are more likely to have open communication with their parents and are better able to resist peer pressure, all of which lowers their risk of substance use and addiction.
Surround teens with a support system
It’s true that once kids reach a certain age, you can’t exactly make their friends for them the same way you once did when you were scheduling playdates with the kids at preschool whose parents you liked the most. However, if they’re feeling isolated because of a move, a school change, or simply because they have a hard time making friends, there are some things you can do to help: Read more on that here.
And although peers play an important role in a teenager’s life, having a strong support system at home is still vital. Keep your engagement level with them high. Talk about their friendships, how they’re using social media, and how they’re feeling about school — in other words, stay involved even though they rely on you less than they used to.
Be sure to model healthy behaviours yourself
Kids are notorious for doing as we do, not doing as we say. The best way to ensure you raise a disrespectful arsehole is to be a disrespectful arsehole yourself. The best way to ensure you raise a child who goes out of their way to help others is to be the person who does just that. And this is no different.
Modelling a healthy lifestyle, both in terms of your own substance use and in terms of the focus you put on self care, physical health, and mental health, will be sending all kinds of signals that they’ll be picking up on over the course of their childhood.
Be aware of the warning signs of substance use and abuse
And finally, it’s important to pay close attention if you do suspect they may be using illegal or addictive substances. Depending on the substance they’re using, the actual warning signs can vary fairly widely, but there are some universal things to watch for, according to Patrick Cronin, an addiction specialist with Ark Behavioural Health.
“I usually tell families that isolation is a big warning sign,” Cronin says. “If your child or teenager or young adult typically was very engaged before, whether it’s sports activities or something else, and you’re starting to see them kind of fall off that and not be interested in things they were interested in before,” that’s something to take note of and be concerned about.
Other signs might include an increase in their fatigue, weight loss, and substantial mood shifts. Regarding those mood shifts: If, for example, you’re concerned about them and ask them about these changes in a loving and supportive tone and they respond in an explosive way, that’s a red flag.
“If they’re super defensive and very irritable about what they’re being asked, usually that’s because they feel so guilty that they’re lashing out about it,” Cronin says. “I’ve seen that a lot, and that can be a very strong warning sign that something might be going on.”
Once you know (or suspect) there is a problem, Cronin stresses the importance of seeking professional help sooner rather than later.
“Parents will reach out to me when they’re just at that breaking point where it’s gotten to be so bad and they need help,” Cronin says. But reaching out sooner — when you suspect you’re seeing some warning signs or you want help figuring out your next steps — can be critical in getting your teenager the care and support they need.