Our children have truly suffered the brunt of the loneliness and uncertainty of life during COVID. They’ve had to face missed dances, canceled sports seasons, Zoom math lessons, possible illness, and even the death of friends or loved ones. It should come as no surprise that 1 in 3 teen girls and 1 in 5 teen boys experienced new or worsening anxiety last year.
Thankfully, parents across the country are finally able to take a breath. As kids receive vaccines and restrictions lift across the country, play dates, soccer games, and sleepovers will soon bring a sense of normalcy back to our lives. Kids will return to building relationships and enjoying the companionship that many have so sorely missed through the pandemic.
Real, in-person school is finally back in sessions for many students across the country. But the return to openness and freedom brings its own problems.
The hard truth is stressed teens are three times more likely to use marijuana and twice as likely to use alcohol. Combining that with relaxed restrictions this coming Winter Break and Spring Semester might foreshadow a rise in teen substance misuse – continuing a trend identified at the beginning of the pandemic.
If you’re the parent of a teen who’s experimenting with substances, don’t be afraid; be prepared. And then feel free to take that breath.
As a parent, a treatment professional, and a person in long-term recovery, I understand that you’re likely to feel upset, betrayed, and angry if you find your teen using substances. But it’s important that you not let those emotions boil to the top. Starting the conversation about substance use can ease tension – and open up communications. Try going for a walk or taking them out to lunch. Sitting them down at the kitchen table or barging into their room can make them feel trapped, and they are more likely to shut down and shut you out.
Your conversation with your teen about their substance use should be transactional, not emotional. Losing your cool will demonstrate to your teen that you’re out of touch. You will find it harder to understand what is going on with them, and what little control you might have over them will slip away.
You don’t have total control over who their friends are, whether they swear, how hard they study, or whether they use drugs and alcohol. More often than not, they’ll go in the direction you steer them. But kids are their own people and, ultimately, they will make these decisions for themselves. What you can do is work to better understand what is going on in their lives and use what you do control, like access to their cell phone, the car, Wi-Fi, money, and more, to influence better decision making.
Taking inventory of what you can control and using that to your advantage is critical to helping your teen develop a healthy relationship with drugs and alcohol. Work with your teen to set expectations, and even let them pick their consequences. Doing this puts the responsibility on them, not you, and will force them to think proactively about their actions.
Always, always, follow through. If they break the rules, take their phone away for a week. If they break them again, take it away for a month, and so on. No ifs, ands, or buts. It’s simple, and that’s the point. Compromising teaches your teen that they can work their way out of the pitfalls of substance misuse, and that’s not always the case.
Expect your kid to fail. In fact, hope that they fail so they can practice the consequences of detrimental behavior while they are still under your roof. It’s far better that you, not their university, employer, or the police, punish them for substance misuse.
Believe it or not, kids want guidance from their parents. Being honest, nurturing growth, and showing understanding and unquestioned love throughout this process will help convince them that you know what they’re going through and that you want to help them figure it out.
These guiding principles have been tested and proven to reduce and stop substance use in a majority of teens through our work at Gobi Support, a nonprofit that offers a free 21-day program to parents and teens to help them build a better level of communication and a healthier relationship with drugs and alcohol. If your teen is struggling with substance misuse, don’t be afraid and rest assured that there are effective resources out there to get you past it with them.