Teens & Drugs – The Warning Signs

– by Walt Mueller
©1998, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

It’s a school district proud of its quiet neighborhoods, good families, high academic standards, and bright students. A $40,000 student survey opened their eyes to the fact that in 1995, district teenagers were using alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, and a variety of other drugs at rates equal to and above the national average. But even though they now know that substance abuse is a problem “that’s happening here . . . “, some parents continue to turn their heads in ignorance as they mutter, “. . . but not to my kid!”

Ignorance denies the fact that every teenager in this country will have to make a personal decision about drugs and alcohol. The abundance or lack of parental interest and involvement plays a huge role in that decision. Informed parents erect preventive substance abuse warning signs for their children, and take care to heed the warning signs sent by their kids.

Seventeen year-old Jennifer speaks with confidence when she says that “drugs and alcohol are not an issue for me. Sure they’re all around me. But I’ve made up my mind to not give in.” When asked about why she can be so certain of herself in an adolescent culture that glorifies alcohol and drug abuse, she quickly places all the positive “blame” on her parents. From the time Jennifer was young, they actively addressed the issue without turning their heads in another direction. Here are six preventive substance abuse warning signs that parents must erect for their children and teens as they travel down the road of adolescence:

Take a look in the mirror. I was raised in a home where abstinence was practiced, not because drinking was wrong, but because my parents knew the power of example. With the number of teen alcohol and drug problems I’ve seen over the years, continuing in their footsteps has been an easy choice. While some people have told me that I should be modeling “responsible drinking”, I think I am. Parents who drink raise kids who drink. Those who rely on over the counter and prescription drugs as relief for every little ailment send a loud message to their children. What kind of lifestyle are you modeling for your kids?

Establish standards and rules. Contrary to what some people think, alcohol and drug use is relatively low among adolescents whose parents have set strict rules about chemical use. A study by the Search Institute found the factor that most distinguished chemical users from nonusers was the response to the question, “How upset would your parents be if you came home from a party and your parents found out you had been drinking?” For those who indicated that their parents would be very upset, chemical abuse was limited. For those with parents who didn’t care, chemical abuse was much more pronounced. Take a stand. Set boundaries and spell out the punishments for drinking, smoking and using drugs. When the pressure is on, your rules might be the “out” for a teen who’s riding the fence of decision.

Encourage involvement with a peer group that doesn’t support drug and alcohol use. With substance abuse strongly related to what one’s friends do, it makes sense to encourage friendships with other teens who have decided to say “no”. Jennifer says that her church youth group is the place she goes to “be myself without having to worry about what other kids think.” She credits her parents with instilling in her a desire to be with Christian friends. It doesn’t hurt that they go out of their way to make it easy by opening up their home to her friends or putting lots of miles on the car from frequent trips to church activities.

Don’t be an enabler. When his weekend party behavior finally caught up to him after an arrest for driving under the influence, Jason’s parents were flabbergasted. They had no idea he was drinking. They shouldn’t have been surprised. Like many parents, their good intentions of unlimited weekend use of the car, gas money, late curfew, and frequent unsupervised use of the house increased the chances that Jason would make poor choices. Don’t make it easy for your teen to drink. Don’t give your teen alcohol or allow parties in your home where alcohol is served.

Give them the facts. Almost half of America’s teenagers get their information about drugs and alcohol from unreliable sources. More than four million learn from their friends. Another five million say they “just picked up” what they know. Drug education should start in the home when children are young. Informed parents openly communicate accurate information about the dangers and effects of various drugs. Teach your children to discern false messages in advertisements that glamorize alcohol consumption. And finally, tell them about the legal issues related to underage drinking and using illegal drugs.

Teach a biblical theology of substance abuse. Our bottom-line goal should be to lead our children into an understanding of how to glorify God through their alcohol and drug attitudes and behaviors. Teach them their responsibility to obey laws (Romans 13:1-3, 6-7) and avoid drunkenness (Proverbs 23:20-21; I Corinthians 5:11; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:18; and I Thessalonians 5:5-8). Teenagers also need parents who will keep ears and eyes open for the presence of problems that lead kids to drink. Study the Bible with your children as you lead them to discover God’s answers to these spiritual problems.

While it is important for moms and dads to do all they can to warn their children about the trap of teen substance abuse, there are situations where a son or daughter will make foolish choices that lead quickly down the path of addiction. Phil and Brenda Fisher were good parents who raised their son Steve in a Christian home. Shortly after his fifteenth birthday, Steve didn’t seem to be himself. Phil assumed that Steve was struggling with the normal changes of adolescence. Steve continually shrugged off his father’s attempts to get him to open up and talk about what was happening in his life. Because they knew that Steve, like all other teenagers, wasn’t immune from the pressure to experiment with drugs and alcohol, they made themselves aware of the warning signs. After confronting Steve with hard facts, he admitted to a growing dependence on marijuana. They were able to get Steve help and love him back to health. Ignorance to the warning signs would have been disastrous.

Like the Fishers, every parent should be aware of four types of teen substance abuse warning signs (see a detailed list in the sidebar below). A combination of several signs warrants immediate attention. Confront your teen and take action before addiction occurs.

Behavioral signs. While unexplained and sudden changes in behavior are typical during adolescence, an increase in negative behaviors can be a clear indicator of substance abuse. The Fisher’s obvious behavioral clue was the change in Steve’s attitude towards school. Normally a good student, Steve’s grades dropped dramatically. His history teacher called to say that Steve had been caught cutting class. His math teacher noticed that Steve seemed aloof and uninterested. Fortunately, they searched beneath these symptoms to the root cause for the sudden change.

Social Signs. It’s a given that teenagers spend increased amounts of time with friends and less time with their parents. But Phil and Steve had always been close. Steve’s rather abrupt withdrawal from his Dad and change in circle of close male friends served as additional clues to his problem.

Physiological Signs. Drug and alcohol abuse always leave “footprints” on a person’s appearance. Steve’s red eyes and sleepiness served as neon lights flashing “PROBLEM”. When the symptoms continued, the Fisher’s knew that Steve was dealing with more than a late night or bout with allergies.

Obvious Signs. It’s easy for parents who hope the best for their children to overlook the behavioral, social and physiological signs by fooling themselves into believing that nothing’s wrong. But arrest, intoxication, or discovery of drug paraphernalia are obvious signs that a teenager has a drug or alcohol problem.

The school district I mentioned earlier has begun to generate a return on their $40,000 investment by educating parents. As part of that process, they are working to convince each and every parent to admit that “it can happen in my family”. Hopefully parents will begin to educate their children by erecting warning signs, and educate themselves by paying attention to their kids. The entire community will reap a huge dividend.  More and more homes will be filled with teenage voices echoing Jennifer’s words, “it’s not an issue for me!”


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