Navigating Your Teen’s Exposure and Use of Substances

Peace at Home May 18, 2022 | Heather Kobylinski

As soon as we become parents, we make it our responsibility to ensure that our child is safe from danger. We are vigilant in identifying potential hazards and taking steps to mitigate all threats. Substance use is one of the issues most parents consider a universal danger at the start. Not one new parent can be heard saying that they will be fine with their child’s occasional use as a teen. They don’t think, “It’s just (beer, wine, vaping), and I’d rather they experiment before they go to college” or “They need to learn how to party.” These words would be shocking to hear for the parents of a newborn or toddler. And yet…

These ideas slowly become the norm for many parents once children reach their teen years. We are giving our kids more freedom and responsibility in social media, driving, and unsupervised activities as part of the transition to adulthood. What was once non-negotiable has become an attitude of, “How else is my child going to socialize? All of the kids are doing it anyway,” and “I’m not going to embarrass myself or my kids by asking if there will be supervision or alcohol at a party.”

While some of these ideas may well be true, it does not absolve us of the commitment we made when our children were born. Somewhere between 12 and 18, we may waiver in our commitment and make concessions, excuse our stance, or outright make a “180” on our priorities. We are not suggesting there is a magic bullet solution, however, we cannot claim to be concerned about teen drug exposure and then overlook the events playing out in our backyards.

So what’s the answer? Taking action to reduce the likelihood of your child experimenting with substances for as long as possible is the best that you can do. Here are some practical tips to consider as you lean into protecting your child to the best of your ability:

  • Communicate your views and beliefs about drugs. Talk with and listen to your kids on this important topic and be unwaveringly clear about your expectations. Parents have more influence on their teens that might be apparent. They still care about your view of them even though they often don’t act that way. 
  • Use the word “drugs” when you talk about beer and hard seltzer. That is what they are. It is easy to become desensitized to these products because of our own experiences and because marketing treats them as harmless and a necessary component of a “good time.” Alcohol and now marijuana are legal drugs embedded into the social culture. The continued use and socializing with alcohol opens the door to exposure to other drugs such as marijuana, vaping, and prescription abuse.
  • Take action through boundaries and consequences. These actions go a long way to solidifying your expectations and provide the consistency that our children need. Consequences are a natural part of life and hopefully an opportunity to learn. Use these teachable moments while the stakes are not quite as steep. This means we may need to change our plans to enforce the rule. Adolescents need even more supervision than toddlers. Adolescents are much more mobile, evolved, and complicated.  

Do the hard work and stand firm. This is not foolproof, but consistency with what you say and what you follow through on will maintain consistency. A unified commitment to our initial promise to protect our children from harm remains important until they reach adulthood – even if this makes us unpopular, creates conflict, or is an “accepted norm” within your community. You can do it. And we are happy to help. 

Musick, Kelly et al. “NEIGHBORHOOD NORMS AND SUBSTANCE USE AMONG TEENS.” Social science research vol. 37,1 (2008): 138-155. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2007.02.00p

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