Drug Use: Prevention Tips and Strategies for Teens

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4/20 (i.e. April 20) has become a celebratory day by enthusiasts of marijuana, which is one of the most commonly abused drugs in the U.S. While marijuana is often viewed as a softer drug, in reality–there is no such thing as a “soft” drug. In fact, the main active chemical in it, THC, affects the brain, heart, and lungs in a number of harmful ways. For teenagers, the effects can be especially damaging on their still developing brains.

Marijuana use prevents teens and adolescents from developing cognitive skills needed to successfully navigate life and delays their emotional maturation. It also clouds judgment, places teens at risk for self-injurious behavior, and increases their risk of developing mental health problems.

Helpful Ways to Ensure Prevention Strategies are in Place

Parents are the number one influence on their children’s actions, and have a strong opportunity to set the stage for their behavior. This year, we ask that parents view 4/20 as a reminder to ensure prevention strategies are in place or initiate them if they are not. The following are prevention tips and strategies that can be implemented today:

  • Know who your kid’s friends are. Kids today are using drugs. If your kid's friends use drugs, it’s more likely that your kids are using drugs as well.
  • Know who your kid's friends' parents are. Talk to them on a regular basis to pinpoint who your kids are engaging with – this includes all online spaces as well. Parenting is difficult enough. You need allies in your struggle to raise healthy kids in today's world.
  • Know what healthy activities excite your kid. Certain activities lend themselves to drug use (i.e. computer games, dark music) while others (i.e. sports, outdoor activities) do not. Once you figure out what motivates your kid, move them closer to or further away from these pastimes.
  • Know what your kid is watching on TV and reading about online. Take the time to talk to your kid about what's going on in the world and on TV. If you think he or she is watching something that is not setting the best example, watch it together and discuss it afterward.
  • Think immediate – not long term. Kids often can't comprehend long-term consequences. Heart disease and cancer is a foreign concept to an adolescent who may feel immortal. They do, however, understand that they could be blocked from going to the prom or having their car taken away.
  • Have open and regular conversations. Talking to your kids about what’s going on in their lives will help you pinpoint possible areas for concern, and give you opportunities to underscore the dangerous effects of marijuana and the immediate consequences of abusing the drug.
  • Make the consequences clear. When your kid is about 11 or 12, sit down and outline the short-term effects and resulting consequences of marijuana and other drug/alcohol use. Follow-through on any consequences you outline if they do partake. Set up a strict no use policy for your child.

What if I catch my kid using marijuana?

Executing against consequences of drug and alcohol usage is critical. Consequences must be clear, rationally related to use, and enforceable. For example, if you find your kid smoking marijuana, you could take away their car, explaining to them that THC impairs rational thinking and brain function, so it would be dangerous to drive. This approach is more effective than a punishment, which addresses behavior in a non-causal way and doesn’t bear a relationship to the behavior. An example of an ineffective punishment for drug use is sentencing a child to spend a month in his room after school, as that doesn’t relate to the effects of using marijuana.  It’s also important for a parent to communicate the whys and wherefores’ of the consequences – your kid needs to know why his or her behavior leads to the consequence. Finally, seek out a professional to assess whether or not your child needs treatment.

Should my kid go into treatment?

There is no hard and fast rule for determining when or if your kid needs professional help. Parents need to trust their instincts, and it does not hurt to be overly cautious. Signs of addiction include chronic and progressive use, and noticing your kids going through the experience of withdrawal if they aren’t regularly using. Contact a therapist or counselor if you’re unsure.

Treatment Options

If you determine that your child does need treatment, figuring out the route for him or her can be a daunting prospect. Some treatment approaches are more effective than others. Look for a center that does not mix kids or adolescents with adults so you can ensure the treatment is age-appropriate. The most effective approaches use a clinical approach, and consider addiction a chronic disease that must address an individual’s mental, physical, and spiritual state.

Facilities such as Hazelden, Caron Treatment Centers and The Betty Ford Center have based their treatment approaches on this model. Some treatment facilities use the methodology of pampering an individual back to health, but there is no evidence that a luxurious setting, without the requisite clinical approach, significantly impacts a person’s chance for a healthy recovery. Wilderness programs tout themselves as taking an emotional and behavioral approach to healing. They are often targeted at adolescent and young adults with “problems” because of their active outdoor approach and isolation. These programs are most effective when recommended by a credentialed treatment facility after a young person attends a residential program.

What steps have you taken to ensure that drug prevention strategies are in place? How do you plan on making sure that your child remains drug-free?

Dr. Hokemeyer, PhD, JD, is a Marriage and Family Therapist for Caron Treatment Centers, a non-profit, leading provider of drug and alcohol addiction treatment. He works with individuals, couples and families to help them understand and heal from unhealthy patterns of relating to themselves and others. Dr. Hokemeyer also serves on the Board of Directors for the New York Division of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.

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