Parenting advice – What’s important when it comes to teens, alcohol, and drugs

Parents often ask us what they can do to prevent their children or teens from becoming alcoholics, drug addicts, criminals, and the likes. I’ve been all of these and more, and so I’d like to share my insight with you now that I’ve made it over to the other side:

You can’t prevent anything – but you can educate, inform, prepare, and support.

My family breaths success; it also breeds its. My father was a star athlete who turned into a star doctor and a star family man. He also never drank alcohol and couldn’t care less about drugs. My mother was a beauty queen who always helped me get the best grades in school, even if it meant that she ended up doing my art projects for me and keeping me up all night so I’d finish my work. I’m not sure if it was my perception or my parents’ actual wish, but I always felt like unless I saved the world, I would end up a nobody. Drinking enough alcohol to black-out and consuming every drug on earth was never supposed to be on my menu.

A recent article I read in a monthly psychology magazine (see my post on it here) talked about this sense of perfectionism in our culture and its effect on teen depression, anxiety, and alcohol and drug abuse. Did you know that these are highest among more affluent teens?

Advice #1 – Shooting for good performance is important, but focusing on it as a sole measure of success can lead to trouble.

I got gifts for grades, and the best gifts came only with the best grades. Anything short of perfect was pretty much frowned upon and considered “less than my best.” It became impossible for me to actually enjoy anything but the school subjects I excelled in (math, physics, chemistry). It wasn’t until I graduated from college and did some of my own exploration that I learned to appreciate art, English, and history as worthwhile pursuits. It’s a well-know fact in developmental psychology that you don’t reward behaviors that are supposed to be appreciated in their own right. If you do reward them do so with small gifts, nothing large. Big gifts take away the perception that the activity itself brought about enjoyment.

Advice #2 – Parenting requires consistency and openness, but leave the preaching for church.

This constant need for perfectionism also lead to the repression of many issues in my family.

My parents fought often when I was a kid, screaming loud enough for me to take my sister away often and go play. We never talked about the fights so I never managed to learn about conflict, relationships, or resolution. We never talked about my stealing either, whether I was stealing from my family (mainly my father’s porn) or from the neighborhood toy store. The one time I got caught, my father sternly told me to return my new toy and to never be caught stealing again. I began stealing away from my neighborhood; it would be years before he’d hear about me stealing again. It probably would have been better to sit down and talk about what just happened.

Later on, when my mother would find my weed in my room, she would hide it so that my dad won’t find it because he would get mad. We call that enabling. When I was caught stealing at my work, my father didn’t want to tell my mom, so as not to upset her, so he never brought it up again. We call that denial. Neither of these work since they don’t teach a child anything except how to hide things properly and that even responsible adults lie.

But research shows us that preaching is not a good parenting technique so stay open and talk about struggles without being hypocritical and trying to teach lessons that are obviously forced. Kids and teens pick up on that very quickly but they’re ready to learn from their parents.

Advice #3 – Don’t let your sense of pride, or your ego, prevent you from dealing with real issues with your children. Parenting requires you to be the adult in the relationship with your children even when things don’t go your way.

By the time my parents were forced to confront reality, things in my life had spiraled way out of control. They received a call from my LA lawyer telling them that their son had been arrested for some pretty serious drug dealing. My bail was set at $750,000 and I was facing 18 years in prison. That’s pretty difficult to ignore.

Ironically, my arrest, court case, and the year I spent in jail brought my family closer together than we had even been during my teen years or my later drug addiction phase. Having to actually confront many of our issues allowed us to bring some actual intimacy into the family I had run away from so many years before. The important thing was that my parents didn’t pull out the “we told you so” card but rather helped me confront my demons and treat them. It was the best parenting I’d received in my life and it worked.

My parents did the best they could. I know that. Still, I can’t help to wonder if worrying a little less about how things “should be” and a bit more about the reality of parenting their deviant son may have prevented the latter part of this story. Then again, there’s no guarantee of that either. That’s the most important parenting advice I can give when it comes to teens and drugs…

Monitoring the Future by NIDA: Teen alcohol and drug use data from a national survey

Teen drug useOne of the perks of being an alcohol, drug use, and addiction researcher, as well as of writing for a website like this and Psychology Today, is that sometimes we get to talk to people that most can’t reach or to receive information that others might not have access to. NIDA‘s Monitoring the Future, a national survey of about 50,000 teens between 8th and 12th grades is a huge annual undertaking the results of which will be released tomorrow for general consumption.

But we got a little sneak peek before everyone else.

If you follow this sort of stuff, you know that teen alcohol and drug use is always shifting as new drugs become more popular and others lose favor with that group of Americans that can’t make up their minds. This year seems to give us more of the same.

Monitoring the future: Early alcohol and drug use results

  1. Daily marijuana use, after being on the decline for a short while is apparently rising once again among teens, following last year’s continuing trend of a reduction in teens’ perceptions of marijuana harmfulness – We’ve written on A3 about some of the specific issues relevant to marijuana use including writing about Marijuana’s addictive potential and its medical benefit. There’s no doubt that the national marijuana debate will continue but the idea of 8th graders smoking weed doesn’t seem to be part of anyone’s plan.
  2. Among some groups of teens drug use is proving more popular than smoking cigarettes – I guess this could be taken as evidence of the effectiveness of anti-smoking campaigns, though until we see the full numbers I’m not going to comment any further on that.
  3. While Vicodin use among high-school seniors (12th graders) is apparently down, non-medical use of prescription medications is still generally high among teens, continuing a recent upward trend – Abuse of prescription stimulants has been on the rise for a number of years as the number of prescriptions for ADHD goes up, increasing access. It is interesting to see Vicodin use go down though the data I’ve received says nothing about abuse of other prescription opiate medications such as oxycontin, so I’m not sure if the trend has to do with a general decrease in prescription opiate abuse among teens.
  4. Heroin injection rates up among high-school seniors (12th graders) – I think everyone will agree that this is a troubling trend no matter what your stance on drug use policy. The associated harms that go along with injecting drugs should be enough for us to worry about this, but again, I’ll reserve full judgment until I actually see the relevant numbers. I’m also wondering if this is a regional phenomenon or a more general trend throughout the United States.
  5. Binge drinking of alcohol is down – As we’ve written before, the vast majority of problems associated with the over consumption of alcohol (binge drinking) among high-school students has to do with the trouble they get themselves in while drunk (pregnancies, DUI accidents, and the likes), so this is an encouraging trend though hopefully it isn’t simply accounting for the above mentioned increases in marijuana and heroin use.

Some general thoughts on NIDA’s annual Monitoring the Future results

I am generally a fan of broad survey information because it gets at trends that we simply can’t predict any other way and gives us a look at the overall population rather than having to make an educated guess from a very small sample in a lab. NIDA‘s annual MTF survey is no different although until I get to see all of the final numbers (at which point there will probably be a follow-up to this article) it’s hard to make any solid conclusions. Nevertheless, I am happy to see binge drinking rates among teens going down and if it wasn’t for that pesky increase in heroin injection rates I would say that overall the survey makes it look like things are on the right tracks.

I’ve written about it before and will certainly repeat it again – I personally think that alcohol and drug use isn’t the problem we should be focusing on exclusively since it’s chronic alcohol and drug abuse and addiction that produce the most serious health and criminal problems. Unfortunately, drug use is what we get to ask about because people don’t admit to addiction and harmful abuse because of the inherent stigma. Therefore, I think that it’s important for us to continue to monitor alcohol and drug use while observing for changes in reported abuse and addiction patterns. Hopefully by combining these efforts we can get a better idea of what drugs are causing increased harm and which are falling by the wayside or producing improved outcomes in terms of resisting the development of abuse problems.