Danger Zone: Teen Substance Use and Treatment

Stephen Gray Wallace

Teen Substance Use and Treatment

Of summer, poet Darcy Cummings wrote of a “child leaving a walled school for the first time, stumbling from cool hallways to a world dense with scent and sound”.

For many youth, a seasonal disconnect from the structured confines of formal education offers a chance to explore passions via experiential learning through travel, internships, jobs, summer camp and, well, just free time to hang out with friends.

It is that last option that may pose the most risk. Why? Free time, less supervision and the potentially negative influence of peers can expose youth to more stress … and distress.

As Christopher Bell, then a rising high school senior, and I wrote in a piece published by kidsinthehouse.com last July, “It’s true that for many young people the break from school is a welcomed respite from self-reported stress induced by classes, homework and extracurricular activities. Yet a significant number of adolescents who participated in a study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) reported also feeling stressed during the summer – and at levels higher than what even they believed to be healthy”.

Unfortunately, just like many adults, adolescents may turn to alcohol and other drugs to find relief, reflection or reaffirmation of connection to the potent peer group.

Original research revealed in my book, Reality Gap: Alcohol, Drugs and Sex – What Parents Don’t Know and Teens Aren’t Telling, details the ying and yang of peer dynamics – making friends both the number one reason why kids make poor choices and the number two reason they don’t.

What’s the takeaway?
Because teens (not parents) are the ones making choices in a season with, arguably, fewer adult eyes on them, the “friendship factor” may be multiplied. In other words, whom your children spend time with may very well dictate the decisions they make.

How can you help?
1. Communicate your expectations for behavior, maybe especially with regard to substance use. Your children want to know what you expect from them and are more likely to try to please you than not.
2. Enforce consequences for breaking family rules and parental trust. Kids generally want to be held accountable for personal behavior.
3. Role-play responses to sticky situations. Just as for firefighters or football players, practice prepares them to do the “right” thing with split-second timing.
4. Designate a code word they can use if they need help extracting themselves from a difficult (and potentially dangerous) situation. Embarrassment is often a reason young people don’t say no.
5. Create a social contract to sign with teens. When parent and child each have a stake in the health and safety of each other, risk decreases.

And what if all that fails?
It is important that parents not underestimate the potential harm of substance use by youth. There are compelling arguments against such use in statistics related to car crash deaths and addiction. On that last topic, the news is mixed. Monitoring the Future (MTF), an ongoing study of the behaviors, attitudes, and values of American secondary school students, college students and young adults, revealed in its 2016 report, “Teenagers’ use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco declined significantly in 2016 at rates that are at their lowest since the 1990s”.

That’s the good news.
The bad news can be found in the report’s caution that marijuana use remains high for 12th graders. With an ever-increasing amount of legalization of marijuana laws in states across the country, this trend may be viewed as alarming …as are rates of addiction.

Heidi Heilman, President of the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance (MAPA) and founder and Chief Executive Officer of Edventi, a company focusing on drug use and addiction prevention and a collaborator at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), recently submitted testimony to the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy. In her written statement, she said, in part, “That marijuana is hazardous to the health of young people is indisputable. The health literature on marijuana use finds that using marijuana as an adolescent has a negative impact on both physical and mental health. Longitudinal studies show that individuals who start around the age of 15 and continue to be regular and significant users into early adulthood suffer memory loss, cognitive function impairment, diminished IQ, and lower educational success rates.

Early users also suffer physically in terms of higher rates of respiratory diseases and higher rates of certain cancers. Regular marijuana users can develop dependence on the drug.”

For clarification and amplification on dependence and addiction, I turned to Carter Barnhart, a CARE National Advisory Board member and national director of referral relations at Newport Academy.

What is addiction?
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as when people who use drugs can’t stop taking a drug even if they want to. Teens who begin using substances never plan to get addicted. They might use drugs because they like how it feels, or because it dulls the pain and stress they’re experiencing, or because their peers are doing it and they want to fit in. The problem is that drug use can quickly turn to drug dependence, because drugs change the brain.

How can parents spot the warning signs that their child may be using/abusing substances?
Signs of teen substance abuse include loss of interest in once favored activities; social withdrawal; unexplained weight loss; secretive behavior; lack of focus; poor hygiene and diminished personal appearance.

What options do parents have for treatment?
Treatment options include outpatient and day treatment, hospitalization, and residential programs. Outpatient and day treatment programs provide varying levels of intensity and time commitment as the teen lives at home, while residential programs provide a safe, healing environment for recovery. An expert assessment is critical, as it can determine which type of treatment a teen needs in order to have the best chance of avoiding relapse.

How can parents motivate a child to agree to treatment?
It’s not always possible to motivate your child to agree to treatment. Denial is often part of substance use. It’s important to speak to him or her calmly, with compassion and clarity. Explain that your decision to get her help is an act of love on your part, not of anger or rejection. It might be useful to ask your child how he envisions life unfolding and how drugs might affect life goals.

Good advice during the fun, free days of summer is that closer parental oversight might be necessary to keep kids safe and out of the danger zone.

Stephen Gray Wallace is President and Director of the Center for
Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative
of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive
youth outcomes and reducing negative risk behaviors. He has broad
experience as a school psychologist, adolescent/family counselor
and college professor. He currently serves as director of counseling
and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the
professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family
Physicians and the American Camp Association and a parenting
expert at kidsinthehouse.com, NBCUniversal’s parenttoolkit.com
and TeenSafe. Stephen is also an expert partner at RANE (Risk
Assistance Network & Exchange). For additional information about
Stephen’s work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com.