Summer break is in full swing, and it’s an unfortunate fact that many teens will take advantage of the downtime to begin experimenting with alcohol and other drugs. Research shows that first-time use of these substances peaks among teenagers in June and July. December is the only other month with similar levels, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). What’s crucial for parents to remember is that they are not helpless bystanders during this high-risk time in their children’s lives. In fact, they are the first line of defense when it comes to reducing the chances that their teens will take their first drink or use other substances. As parents, we must have an open dialogue with our kids about what they’re doing and about substance use. “Make sure they know that you’re there to answer their questions and that there’s no question that’s inappropriate,” says Dr. George Askew, chief medical officer for the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Askew says that agreeing on expectations when a teen is young — and parents setting the right example — helps a teen grow into an identity as a non-drinker.
Importantly, we now know that substance use by teens and young adults is anything but a simple rite of passage. Recent findings by neurologists tell us that the brain isn’t fully formed until about age 25 — not when a child reaches 12 or 13, which had been the long-held belief. For that reason, the teenage brain is far more susceptible to damage from binge drinking and hard drugs than the adult brain. “Teens are primed to learn quickly — but addiction is actually a form of learning, and they get addicted faster than they would if they were exposed to the same substances later,” Dr. Francis Jensen, who chairs the neurology department at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Guardian. “Chronic pot smoking has a long-term effect, as it’s actually changing your brain chemistry, just like enriching environments and academic learning do.” Because the adolescent brain is still developing, teens need guidance about their choices. The most common reasons a teen might be tempted to experiment with drugs include peer pressure, boredom, stress, poor self-esteem, a desire to escape or simply out of curiosity. Although experimentation does not necessarily mean that a teen will cross over to addiction, most adults who struggle with addiction began using substances before the age of 21. Askew says parents need to make clear to their teens the rules and consequences of alcohol and drug use. But he says that if a teenager needs help, such as a ride home because of drinking, help should come first and consequences should wait until everyone is calmer. As far as opening up a conversation with their teens, parents should ask such straightforward questions as “Have you used alcohol or other drugs?” or “Have you been offered drugs recently?” Having frequent conversations greatly contributes to adolescents making smart decisions about substance use. And if this isn’t the first such talk you’ve had with your child, here’s an idea for a follow-up conversation from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids: “I know we’ve had conversations about drugs before, and I’m sorry if you feel like I’m being a nag. I want us to be able to discuss difficult topics because I love you and I want to be of help during these years when you’re faced with a lot of difficult choices. My concern is that the drug landscape is drastically changing, and that’s why it’s important that we talk about it. Would that be OK?”
Busy Teens More Likely to Stay Safe
Starting a discussion about substance use is a critical first step in keeping teens out of harm’s way this summer. Helping them find ways to keep busy is step two. Teenagers who describe themselves as “frequently bored” increase their chances of getting drunk, using illegal drugs and smoking by 50%, according to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Here are some ideas to keep teens occupied during the risky summer months:
- Summer job — Working and earning a paycheck not only helps keep your teen away from alcohol and other drugs, but it can also help them gain confidence and make new friends. The responsibility of holding down a job helps teens develop a sense of responsibility and can make a huge difference in helping them grow up.
- Volunteer work — Food banks and animal shelters are just a few of the places that are always looking for help. Your teen may also find it rewarding to volunteer with the national parks, the local community garden, Habitat for Humanity or the Red Cross. Volunteer Match is a website featuring volunteer opportunities all across the U.S.
- Organized activities — Athletic and academic camps have a multitude of benefits. Not only do they keep teens busy, they also help them build social and leadership skills, boost confidence and self-esteem and perhaps most importantly, have fun while being drug-free.
- Family time —Taking a vacation with your teen is a great way to strengthen the family bond. If you can’t get time off from work, family dinners, weekend getaways, shopping trips or going to the ballpark or gym together are just a few ways to give you time together and add structure to the long summer days.
Teens may equate summer with freedom, but for parents, it’s a time to be even more involved in their children’s lives. Substance use by adolescents is not a harmless rite of passage, but rather a recipe for teen drug addiction and problematic teen drinking. If you haven’t had a conversation with your teen about drugs, do it today. Make it an open and ongoing conversation. Your teen gets only one brain. Help them protect it.