Myths about teens and substance use


Busting the worst myths about teens and substance use

Raising healthy youth who launch enthusiastically into adult life with few scratches and bumps is hard work. Parenting a teen is full of awkward moments, self-doubt, hilarity, sweet memories and plenty of chewed finger nails. One of the big worries of parents trying to escape adolescence unscathed is the potential of drug and alcohol use interfering with their child’s successful launch from the nest. Avoid some common parenting pitfalls by debunking these widespread myths.

Myth #1: “Making something taboo only makes it more attractive to teens.”

The Myth of the Taboo says that if you make something off-limits to teens, they are more likely to do it. Adopt a laissez-faire attitude about something, like marijuana use for example, and you remove the allure.

It may be hard to believe when your kids constantly texting with their friends and rolling their eyes every time you talk to them, but parents are the biggest influence on their child’s decisions about substance use. In surveys, teenagers name their parents as their primary influence on decisions about whether or not to drink alcohol. Setting clear family rules about drug and alcohol use is an effective prevention strategy.

Consider the results from the bi-annual survey of Washington State youth:

  • When teens believe their parents think it’s wrong for them to use marijuana they are 5 times less likely to be current marijuana smokers by 10th
  • When they believe that their community thinks it’s wrong for teens to use marijuana, they use marijuana at half the rate of their peers who think the community thinks it’s alright.
  • When family rules about drugs and alcohol are clear, 10th graders are less likely to be current marijuana smokers (15% versus 35%), less likely to be current alcohol drinkers (18% versus 44%), and less likely to binge drink (11% versus 31%).

It’s not only what parents think about marijuana use that matters. The more teens think marijuana use is a bad idea, the fewer teens use marijuana: only 6% of 10th graders who think smoking marijuana is very wrong have tried it at least once as compared to 51% of 10th graders who think its possibly not wrong.

It is not the taboo nature of underage drinking and marijuana use that makes teens more likely to use. The polar opposite is true. When parents clearly communicate their strong disapproval of underage substance use, their children are likely to avoid or abstain from alcohol and marijuana use.

Myth #2: “All teens smoke pot”

Marijuana sure is popular. In fact, it is the primary drug of abuse for adolescents admitted to inpatient rehab. It is more popular among teenagers than cigarettes. It is quickly becoming legal in one form or another around the country.

With marijuana as popular as it is, it may be difficult for you to believe that three-quarters of high school students did not smoke any marijuana this month. Only half of high school students have even tried marijuana. Heavy marijuana use is even more rare. Less than 1 out of 10 high school students smoked at least 10 times this month.

If you have a teenager at home, talk to them about the real numbers. Let them know that even though it may seem like everyone at their school is getting high, most of their peers are making the decision not to smoke pot or drink alcohol. Tell them that you hope that they will do the same.

Myth #3: “My child is safer drinking at home with their friends than out who-knows-where.”

It is called “social hosting” and it’s a dangerous myth about safer underage drinking. Different from the practice of serving small amounts of alcohol to your own children during family dinners or holidays, social hosting refers to parents hosting underage drinking parties for their kids. Social hosting includes parents supplying alcohol, or simply allowing underage alcohol use, at gatherings of their child’s friends. Twenty-eight states have laws prohibiting social hosting and many municipalities have established their own regulations. For example, the upscale city of Mercer Island, Washington, fines parents $250 for hosting underage alcohol-related gatherings on their property, even if they were unaware that the party was taking place.

Check the law in your state:

I have heard the thinking behind this practice from well-meaning parents. The logic is that all kids are going to drink alcohol at some point anyway. It follows that if they are bound to drink alcohol with or without their parent’s permission, at least the parent knows where their child is, knows their child’s friends, can monitor for safety, and can eliminate drunk driving or legal trouble. Unfortunately for those who mean well, the research tells us how ineffective this strategy really is.

The research on social hosting is clear. In a 2014 review published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, there was a clear consensus across three studies, including over 10,000 participants, that social hosting increased alcohol-related harm to minors. “Social hosting is never a good idea,” say the review’s authors, “Parents might believe that they are keeping their children and their children’s friends safe by allowing them to drink in their home. This is not the case. Adolescents who attend parties where parents supply alcohol are at increased risk for heavy episodic drinking [binge drinking], alcohol-related problems and drinking and driving.” So much for keeping them safe.

The truth about teens and substance use

Although it’s not abnormal for teenagers to experiment with alcohol and marijuana, most high school kids are not using regularly and even fewer will go on to develop problematic heavy use or addiction. Expressing your disapproval of underage alcohol and marijuana use and setting clear rules against it reduces use. Delaying the age at which they first experiment with substance use and reducing the amount they use will help protect them from developing future addictions. Stay involved in your teen’s life because you are the biggest influence on your child’s decisions about their use. Exercise your influence.

Lara Okoloko