There are many different reasons why youth begin drinking alcohol and using drugs. By knowing the potential causes, you can support your child to make healthy choices. Let’s explore some reasons why adolescents use drugs or alcohol and what parents can do.
To Feel Included
Sometimes adolescents use drugs or alcohol to help them feel part of a group. In this life stage, their bodies are going through many changes and they’re figuring out who they are. When drugs or alcohol are normalized in a social environment, it increases the likelihood an adolescent will use. During adolescence, youth become increasingly more focused on peer relationship as part of their natural development. The desire to be accepted and fears of being labeled negatively by others becomes heightened.
By knowing your child’s friends, as well as their parents, this can help increase your awareness of their social environment. Find out if there is going to be an adult home when you child is spending time at their friend’s house. Also, don’t assume other parents have the same values that you do regarding drug and alcohol use among youth. Instead, communicate and affirm those values with the adult, especially if your child will be spending time at their house.
Though peer influence grows during adolescents, it’s important to remember that family influence continues to make a significant difference in their choices. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, 3 out of 4 teens say that their parents are the biggest influence on whether or not to drink alcohol. Parents have an impact on their child’s decision making through reasoned persuasion, communication of accurate information, consistent expectations, follow-through, and unconditional love.
At times, youth turn to drug and alcohol use because they want to change how they feel. Adolescents look for something that will excite them. As stated earlier, they go through a lot of developmental changes during this stage in life. One of those changes is the brain development, which proceeds in stages. For example, some of the brain regions that reach maturity earliest are those that mediate direct contact with the environment by controlling sensory functions such as vision, hearing, touch and spatial processing. The next part to follow would be areas that coordinate those functions and last would be areas that manage the executive functions. Some executive functions include planning, setting priorities, organizing thoughts, suppressing impulses, and weighing the consequences. In addition to the brain development, the surge of hormones from puberty also impacts mood and excitability.
Not only does this process make it difficult for the adolescent brain to make reasoned decisions, but it increases risk-taking, impulsivity, and sensation-seeking. This results in a desire for activities with high excitement and low effort, as well as a heightened interest in novel stimuli. All of which occurs before the capacity for good judgement and weighing consequences has fully developed. Though the process is a part of normal adolescent development that has evolved to encourage youth to leave the nest and seek their own path, these factors do increase the risk of drug and alcohol use when seeking out unhealthy opportunities for thrills, strong sensations, and heightened emotions. By understanding that the desire for excitement is a natural part of adolescent development, you can help your teen find positive ways to express that energy.
Adolescents also use drugs and alcohol to cope with negative feelings. When stressful life events occur, such as a break up, conflict at home, or losing a close friend, they may use drugs or alcohol to cope with feelings of sadness, anger, or loneliness. In other cases, youth may be experiencing a behavioral health disorder such depression, anxiety, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity. They may find temporary relief of their symptoms through the drugs or alcohol, but it can also worsen the problem long-term. Behavioral health disorders can be treated. If you are concerned that your child is struggling with overwhelming feelings, set aside time to sit down and talk with them, giving your child the space to share what they’re experiencing. If it appears your child needs professional support, don’t hesitate to contact a school counselor or health care provider for further evaluation.
Social Norms and the Media
Adolescents are highly susceptible to perceptions of what’s “normal” in society. A teen’s perception of the norms around substance use can contribute to their decision to use alcohol or drugs. If an adolescent believes that most kids drink or use drugs regularly, even if this isn’t factual, it increases the likelihood they will engage in the activity. Perception of norms has a significant influence on behavior.
Even though most adolescents aren’t using drugs or drinking alcohol, the media often portrays it that way. In fact, media attention on drugs and alcohol can serve to normalize those behaviors. Legal status, availability, and marketing all play a role in the youth’s perception of drugs and alcohol. Adolescents are highly sensitive to how drugs and alcohol use is portrayed. When celebrities promote drugs and alcohol through their photos on social media, music normalizes it as a part of the subculture, and marijuana is celebrate on 4/20, society communicates a strong message to youth.
Be well informed of what your child is interested in. Spend time watching the shows they like and listen to their music so you can understand the culture they inhabit. Most adolescents love to show up their parents with their knowledge, so ask questions. Learn about their interests and don’t dismiss them. Take your child’s celebrity interests and seriously ask what it is about that person they like. Don’t try to be the cool parent, instead, be the engaged parent. It may feel difficult addressing the powerful message of the media, but recognize that there are positive and negative media forces at work influencing your child. Adolescents may obsess over celebrities, but they don’t watch anyone as closely as they do their families. Parents too convey their own potent message through their words and actions. Be a positive model for your child and create an environment that counters negative forces in our culture.
What Role do Families Play?
Adolescent drug and alcohol use is impacted by many factors. Though it might seem that parents have little to no impact over these extensive forces, family influence plays a tremendous and significant role in preventing drug and alcohol use in adolescents. Communicate the facts with your child, that most teens do not use drugs and alcohol; but overall the drug use has been decreasing nationally and in Hawaii. Try and help your child connect with positive outlets for their energy like school, sports, clubs, hobbies and many more. Find ways to reinforce healthy behaviors, whether it’s reading, something active or artistic. Set aside times to talk to your child about not using drugs and alcohol, and the harmful effects to the growing body. By helping your child navigate the choices they will need to make throughout adolescence to adulthood, you are arming them with tools to last a lifetime.