How Not to Keep a Teenager off Drugs
by Janice Maddox
The longer a child or adolescent can be kept off of alcohol or other mind altering substances, the better. The younger somebody starts, the greater the risk they will become somebody who qualifies as a full-blown alcoholic or addict and the onset will be earlier. This is because adolescent brains are going through a critical phase of development and there is greater potential for “hard-wiring” something into a developing brain.
Teenagers don’t think like us. Neither do children. We tend to think those who respond to us in a language we understand have the same ways of comprehending information we do. This is not true for teenagers. One case example is “Scared Straight” programs which became popular subsequent to a 1978 documentary of the same name.
In the documentary, a group of juvenile delinquents spent three hours in a state prison while a group of prisoners attempted to scare them straight by screaming and yelling at them, as a form of aversion therapy. The teens in the documentary were deemed to have been scared straight. Subsequent to the release of the documentary, “Scared Straight” prevention programs became popular for a time.
Scared Straight programs ended up actually increasing the probability a teenager would engage in crime, as opposed to decreasing it. Teenagers who went through the programs were more likely to engage in delinquent behavior than those that hadn’t. Those programs were abandoned, except by parents who continue to attempt to frighten youth onto a straight path thinking teenagers care about consequences in the same way a healthy adult would.
Parents who had negative outcomes from their own history of delinquency like to tell their children what happened to them, as a deterrent to engaging in similar behavior. This is understandable, but it actually is not the thing to do. What the adolescent brain hears is “My mom/dad did it and they are fine.” You may be living in a tiny apartment wearing raggedy shoes and wishing you could afford an i-pod because you threw away a promising medical career as a result of past drug use.
What the teenager sees is that you have your own place to live and so are doing fine. To the teenager, the idea of having a tiny apartment of their own is Nirvana. The message becomes “My mom/dad did it and they are okay.” Plus, the thought of being your age at all is very difficult for them to comprehend.
Given what is happening in the adolescent brain, most will not have the capacity to put themselves in your shoes and apply your situation to a future self. That would involve executive functioning and the processing of multiple abstractions. The regions in the brain that would allow them to do those things with any proficiency aren’t fully developed in the human brain until the age of twenty-four or twenty-five.
This is also why a lot of teenagers aren’t sympathetic to a parent who had a hard day at work and aren’t able to understand the connection between that and your desire to stay home instead of drive them to the mall. You might as well be speaking Swahili. All they hear is that you must not really love them or you would take them to the mall. I know there are exceptions out there, but this is how a brain without a fully developed frontal cortex or cerebellum is prone to respond.
This doesn’t mean we don’t try to explain things to teenagers. Although you are better off not talking about your past drug use.
The more teenagers hear about others engaging in delinquent behavior, the more it norms the behavior for them, even if you are telling them not to do it.
This may be why the old versions of the DARE program which focused on education were found to be completely ineffective and in some cases appeared to also increase the probability a child would use. The people who say, “I listened to a DARE presentation and decided I would never use drugs or engage in underage drinking” are the youth who likely would not have engaged in the behavior, regardless. Or, they are a rare exception.
Other ways we norm alcohol and drug use and therefore increase the odds youth will engage in the behavior are through the “I know you are going to do this, it’s what teenagers do” stance. When media puts out headlines they read “Twenty-five percent of youth report binge drinking!” They should read “Seventy-five percent of youth report they do not engage in binge drinking!” When we norm the behavior, we greatly increase the odds youth will engage in the behavior. It doesn’t really pay to be the understanding authority figure who turns a blind eye to teenage drinking and drug use.
I recently attended a very informative day-long presentation by Linda Chamberlain PhD, MPH on the adolescent brain. Related to alcohol and drug prevention, I was struck by a statement she made: “The teenage brain loves novelty.” This was explained as being related to chemical changes that occur in the brain during adolescence which results in a teenager’s “feel good circuitry” being triggered by novel or risky behavior.
I thought this made sense as nature’s way of encouraging teenagers to become more independent and to strike out on their own. This explains my teenaged self’s eagerness to drive miles and miles by myself in a rickety car from the rocky mountain state I’d attended high school in to San Diego, where I didn’t know anybody, with $200 dollars in my pocket and no job prospects because I’d heard it was a nice place to live.
“Scared Straight” programs may trigger the teenager’s love of novelty and risk,making a life of crime seem more, rather than less, compelling.
When my grand-nephew turned twelve I started arranging an adventure for him each summer which was my conscious effort to keep him from becoming one of the kids smoking cigarettes in parking lots. The first year he had his first trip in an airplane. The next we went to San Francisco and traveled up the coast for his first view of the ocean. The next year I took him to San Diego to see his favorite football team play (Chargers).
I had a sense the teenaged brain loved novelty. Science just hadn’t proved it yet. When he was fifteen he told me he didn’t intend to drink or do drugs. I hope that continues.
One-shot approaches don’t really work. One big adventure isn’t going to change the course of a teenager’s life. In the world of prevention, the activities with my grand-nephew needed to be integrated into ongoing relationships and patterns to have an impact.
A hand-out from Linda Chamberlain’s training states, among other things, “Approximately one-fourth of high school students are considered binge drinkers (defined as consuming five or more drinks in a row).” This means three-fourths of high school students are not binge drinkers. The message to give teenagers is it is not normal behavior for teenagers, as opposed to winking, nodding and saying “I know you are going to do it. All teenagers do.”
Given the teenager’s love of novelty and risk, one of the best things you can do is provide regular opportunities for novel, challenging, healthy risks and experiences. Take them to see the Blue Man Group, if you ever get the chance. Then get them a set of drums. Take them on hikes or backpacking
trips. Take them fishing. Teach them how to build a shed with power tools.
Get them involved in opportunities to engage in positive activities in the community such as performing on stage. Help them find a cause that excites them where they can make a difference, such as volunteering at an animal shelter or raising money for starving children in Africa or helping local seniors.
One local parent has given his daughter the opportunity to write a weekly column for a local newspaper.
An essential thing to do to increase the odds for your teenager’s novelty-loving teenage brain is to provide opportunities for positive activities that are challenging, new, and engaging. One thousand lectures will, unfortunately, be of limited use. Be aware of where your teenager is and who they are hanging out with. If they are spending a lot of time at a particular friends, get to know that friend's parent(s) or guardian and make sure there is supervision. Verify your child is where they are supposed to be.
Once a teenager has been given freedom, it is very hard to reign it in. Pulling in the reigns after you realize there is a problem and after the teenager has been allowed substantial freedom is very, very challenging.
Keep any prescription medications locked up and appropriately dispose of them when you are done with them so there is no temptation sitting in your medicine cabinet. Prescription medication abuse is steadily growing among teenagers and the most common way they are obtained is through a parent's medicine cabinet.