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The Benefits of Sobriety: How to Talk to Your Teen About Drugs

If you can think back to the early days of high school, you may remember that it isn’t easy being a teen – at least, in a teen’s eyes. It’s a confusing and tumultuous time, punctuated by rapid physical and social changes, which are hard to keep up with. 

Teens want to be seen and respected as adults, yet many are still woefully unprepared for the responsibilities and hardships of being a grown-up. For too many, adolescence also represents the onset of concrete mental health issues, where signs and symptoms of anxiety or depression often develop into full-blown pathology. 

It’s no wonder, then, that adolescence is often the turning point for illicit drug use and addiction. Teens are more likely to begin to experiment with drugs as they enter the last years of high school – and even if they aren’t interested, surveys show that most teens know where and how to get the drugs they want

You can’t stop a teen from being curious. But you can arm them with better knowledge and understanding of the kind of things their classmates and schoolmates try out – and make sure that they’re aware of the real downsides of drug use, the benefits of continued sobriety, and the important fact that using drugs really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. 

Starting the Conversation 

When talking to teens about drug use, a good place to start would be to look at what works and what doesn’t. The disheartening reality is that most anti-drug campaigns targeting high schools failed miserably. Some ended up correlating with an increase in teen drug use statistics. 

There are a number of potential reasons why. If you’ve ever seen a DARE campaign, then you might know that they originally began as scaremongering tactics, usually applied by police officers on school campuses. Teens generally don’t like figures of authority, but they may be especially inclined to feel indifferent or even hostile towards the police. 

Furthermore, teens – now more than ever – are notorious fact-checkers and will question anything you say. If a police officer exaggerates the dangers of marijuana or lies about how heroin will make you addicted after a single hit, they might come to question everything they’ve ever heard about drugs from figures of authority. 

Stick to the truth, which is ugly enough. Some of the facts of teenage drug use include:

  • A correlation between age of first contact and risk of addiction. The younger someone is the first time they try addictive substances, the more likely they are to struggle with addiction later in life. 
  • The facts on teenage drug use and cognitive decline. Certain drugs – especially stimulants and alcohol – have been linked to a marked decrease in decision making, risk assessment, and executive functioning. 
  • The long-term link between alcohol and anxiety. Some teens drink to feel disinhibited and achieve a calming effect while buzzed – but long-term alcohol use actually increases symptoms of anxiety, making the brain more susceptible to stressful triggers, and physiologically aggravating the sympathetic nervous system (the brain’s gas pedal) through dehydration and nerve damage. 
  • Higher rates of unsafe sex, pregnancy, and car accidents among teens who regularly drink or use drugs. Drug use reduces your capacity to recognize and react to risk, something teenagers already innately struggle with. 
  • Increased risk of physical and sexual violence between teens whenever drugs are involved, including alcohol. 
  • And more

Teens like feeling smart, and knowing they’ve made a better choice. Selling sobriety as the smart choice, the cool choice, and even the choice of counterculture is often going to be easier than just telling your teens that drugs are bad, so they shouldn’t do them. Many successful anti-drug campaigns banked on the fact that, while drugs like marijuana might not always be a gateway to harder substances or a cause of overdose deaths, they are still pretty “lame”. 

Being Sober is Cool, Actually

Different drugs have different consequences. Famously “hard” drugs like cocaine and heroin are as addictive as they are dangerous. Heroin and other opioids have become incredibly dangerous in the US as a result of the opioid epidemic – opioid supplies have increased massively in recent years, often laced with a potent opioid called fentanyl, which is fatal in low doses. 

Yet even ostensibly legal drugs like alcohol and nicotine, or potential legal substances like marijuana have their fair share of consequences, especially for teens. While it’s hard to overdose on a cigarette, nicotine is unbelievably addictive (even more so that most street drugs), and tobacco continues to be a major cause of heart failure, lung disease, and strokes. Although smoking on campus has declined, nicotine has made a major comeback through e-cigarettes and vaping, which carry their own special list of risks. 

Alcohol, due to its ubiquitous availability and cultural status, is a drug nearly every teen has tried before they’re legally capable of purchasing it. Yet in terms of damage per capita, excessive drinking alone makes alcohol perhaps the most fatal drug of all, linked to nearly 400 deaths per day.  

While marijuana may even see multiple medical uses in the near future, it isn’t harmless either. Long-term marijuana use is linked to a significant decline in mental faculties, especially memory and problem solving. 

Trust is Important 

Teens generally understand that using drugs is illegal, and even dangerous. If you’ve ever talked to your child about medication in the past, then they might even know that certain medication can be helpful under specific contexts and with the right dosages, but dangerous when taken without direction. 

Yet that doesn’t immunize even the smartest or most level-headed teen from making an exception if the circumstances feel right. These kinds of decisions are always made in-the-moment, and even if they result in feelings of guilt or remorse right after, the truth is that teens are just a lot more impulsive than adults, and that’s partially to blame on the way their head works. 

There’s a difference between doing something you’re not supposed to, and not coming forward with it. If your teen has used drugs in the past, it’s important that they understand they can trust you enough to tell you about it. That trust requires a few things, including: 

  • An understanding that you will be non-judgmental towards your teen’s actions and decisions
  • Knowing that you will give them the opportunity to explain themselves – even if that explanation does nothing to excuse the risk they put themselves through. 

If you suspect that your teen has been using drugs or has used drugs in the past, address your concerns without coming across as accusatory or interrogative. Bring up the topic of drugs impartially and non-personally, and perhaps even talk about your own experiences with drugs in the past, or those of someone you knew. 

Then, ask your teen if they’ve ever tried anything, or know someone who did. Giving your teen the opportunity to talk about someone else allows them to project their experiences onto a friend to gauge your reaction – and if you aren’t wrathful, they might be more likely to admit that they were talking about themselves. 

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