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Risky Business: Teens & Substances

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

If you have ever smoked, dabbled in drugs, or drank beer or harder stuff you probably remember the first time you did any of those things and the reason you tried them. Most likely the reasons included wanting to go along with a peer who already used them and also simple curiosity.

Kids who “turn to drugs,” as the phrase goes,  don’t do it to be delinquent or even to experience the high or buzz. The first time is more social or experimental. And once kids are past the first time, the second time is easy. That’s why using is such a risky business.

You can see that your child’s reasons for trying risky behaviors are the same impulses you’ve encouraged throughout his childhood: appreciation of good friends and a lively interest in the world. So what can you do now that these prosocial impulses are tinged with danger?

First, avoid adding to the reasons:

  • If you drink, smoke or use in any way, don’t indulge in front of the kids.
  • If you drink, smoke or use, don’t share things with your children, not even the Thanksgiving chardonnay.
  • And don’t be so harsh and restrictive that doing drugs, drinking, and smoking are made attractive as ways to get back at you.

And then, do what you can:

  • Talk to your kids about substance abuse, early and often.
  • Pay attention and if you find evidence, ask nicely about it.
  • Notice their friends who are using and ask about them too.
  • Listen – but expect to be lied to.

Kids outgrow this fixation on substances if they live to grow at all. It’s worth it to keep trying until that happens.

The Sorcerer’s Broom

Do you remember the story of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”? Mickey Mouse played the apprentice in Fantasia. In the story, a wizard’s serving boy succeeds in making a broom come to life, but then he can’t control it. He tries to chop it to bits but the bits just become more brooms and make more mischief. The poor apprentice can’t get ahead of the train of events that he set in motion.

Trying to get ahead of the danger-of-the-day is like that. By the time parents figure out what mischief teens are in to and take steps to warn them away, the kids are on to something new. Adults can never quite catch up.

So building a sense of responsibility and that elusive ability to foresee the outcome of one’s actions is the only certain way to safeguard kids against dangers you can’t even imagine. Long before your child will be tempted (which means long before she gets to middle school) give her chances to make small decisions. Let her see how things come out and evaluate her choices.

Doing this with small decisions over time during childhood will give your child the skills she needs to think things through later when risky temptations come her way.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.