Summertime is here – and so is the season when many teens with time on their hands turn to experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Rather than throw up your hands and say there’s nothing you can do, take a minute to reflect on just how important and influential parents’ roles are to their children. In fact, you can make a difference. It all starts with having proactive strategies in place to ensure your teens learn to live by the family’s rules and moral values, to appreciate that there are healthier ways to enjoy their summer months, and that responsibility is something that needs to be practiced. What can you do? What are some of the most important areas to focus on? Here are some suggestions.
Instead of just going off to work and reminding teens to “be good” or “stick around the house” or warning them not to stay out too late, the best way to be in the know about what your children are doing is to be involved in their daily lives. This doesn’t mean that you have to take time off from work to watch over them like a hawk, but it does mean that you engage in ongoing conversation about their likes, their friends, new activities and interests, what’s bothering them, any peer pressure, struggles with skills or learning ability, and what they want to get out of summer. The more you interact with your teens, the more natural and comfortable this way of communicating will feel. The overarching impression is that you care about your kids and want to do all that you can to ensure that their teen years are filled with beneficial opportunities to learn and grow, and to build their core sense of values and increase personal responsibility. Naturally, this will require more effort on your part than you may have thought, especially if you are only now beginning to realize that you can’t just leave kids to grow up on their own. In a vacuum, there are all sorts of dangers and risks for teens. Without firm and loving guidance and a moral compass, teens will likely find themselves on the wrong side of decision-making at a critical time. While this may be easy to recommend, how do you implement a strategy to be involved in your teens’ lives? You could try the following:
- Ask about their plans for the summer.
- Discuss as a family things to do together on the weekend or make plans for a family summer vacation.
- Learn the names and background of all your teen’s friends.
- Communicate with the parents of your teen’s friends and make sure they know your wishes about not allowing alcohol and drug use.
- Set clear rules, including rules about alcohol and drug use. Enforce the rules you set.
- Know where your children are, what they are doing, whom they are with, and whom they are friends with.
- Research activities together that your teen can participate in – hopefully, pertaining to his or her interests, but also encouraging them to discover new ones.
- Have family meals together – no eating on the run or skipping meals. Use this time to discuss what everyone did today and what plans are for tomorrow and later on in the week.
- Keep a family calendar with important dates and activities clearly listed.
- Check in during the day with your teen using social media, instant message, texting or a quick phone call. Maybe use this time to let your teen know you’ve found out some information regarding an upcoming trip or event, or saw a great outfit or a guitar on sale or something else that will spark your teen’s interest and excitement.
- Make time for one-on-one talks with your teen about anything that seems to be bothering him or her – or gently try to determine what may be wrong, if you notice a difference in attitude, dress, manner of speech, appearance or disappearance of certain friends, and so on.
- Create a pledge between yourself and your children that promises they will not drink alcohol and use drugs.
Be a Good Role Model
It goes without saying – but it needs to be repeated – that parents should show teens good behavior by their own actions. This means that parents have to know that their teenage son and daughter will be watching how they behave when others are around at a party where alcohol is served, at a restaurant when the parents order wine or cocktails and then get in the car and drive, even casual comments made about alcohol or drug use shown in movies and on television. If you don’t want your teens to believe you have a laissez-faire attitude about drinking and drug use, you need to demonstrate that you have the good sense not to drink to excess, to drink and then drive, to drink regularly, to pop pills for every little reason, to combine pills and alcohol, to relax and unwind with a joint, a beer and a pill of some sort. Beyond not drinking and using drugs – unless the medication is prescribed for you by a doctor and taken only by you for the purposes prescribed – you also need to convey that drinking and drug use does not solve problems. Instead, it creates and exacerbates problems. Does this mean a radical change in your lifestyle? Maybe, but wouldn’t that be for the better? If you are a concerned parent, paying attention to rampant drug and alcohol use in society and knowing that teens are naturally curious and want to experiment, maybe this is a small price to pay to ensure that your children have an opportunity to grow up safe, secure and able to make sound decisions. The old way of thinking was that parents could help ensure their teens learned about responsible drinking by making sure the teens drank at home under parental supervision. Today, however, research has shown that this is a false and dangerous strategy. It only shows teens that drinking and drug use is permissible, not that it is dangerous. Keep in mind that teens do not have a fully developed brain until they are in their 20s. Their ability to make sound decisions isn’t where it needs to be yet and they can and do engage in crazy and destructive behavior when under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Just because they may be drinking in front of you at home doesn’t make this pattern of behavior any safer or better for them. If you have any doubt about the validity of the recommendation to not allow teens to drink at home, remember any adult or caregiver in your own life that you saw engage in inappropriate behavior while drinking or using drugs. Maybe it was an uncle that consistently got sloshed and stumbled out the door to drive, often winding up in fender-benders, getting arrested for DUI or got involved in fights, trouble with the law, missed work and so on. Maybe it was a parent or older brother that you saw drive while drunk or high. How much did this behavior influence your own beliefs about alcohol and drugs? You are the most important influence on your growing teens. Consistent study findings have shown that teens consider their parents to be highly or somewhat influential in their lives. In other words, they do tend to listen to what parents tell them. The more often family rules and values are reiterated and adhered to, the more of an influence they tend to have on teens. Being a positive role model to teens means that parents:
- Stay away from alcohol in high-risk situations. For example, do not drive a vehicle after drinking.
- Get help if you believe you (the parent) have an alcohol-related problem.
- Do not give alcohol or drugs to your children. Convey in a clear and concise manner that alcohol and drugs in your home are off limits to them and their friends at all times.
Be Aware of Risk Factors
Being a responsible and loving parent also means that you take the time to familiarize yourself with risk factors that may propel your teen toward alcohol and drug use, including:
- Any significant social transition, such as moving from middle school to high school and getting a driver’s license
- Any family history of alcoholism or drug use
- Depression and other serious emotional problems
- A history of social and emotional difficulties
- Any contact with peers involved in troubling or suspicious activities
According to the latest Monitoring the Future Study from the University of Michigan, underage drinking continues to be a pervasive problem among American youth. The study of 10th and 12th graders found that:
- Nearly half (44 percent) of teens have consumed alcohol within the last year, while more than one in four teens (26 percent) reports having been drunk in the last year.
- More than a quarter (26 percent) of teens said they had consumed alcohol within the last month, while more than one in seven (15 percent) reported being drunk in the last 30 days.
- One in seven teens (14 percent) said they have had five or more drinks (binge drinking) in a row within the last 14 days.
- More than three-quarters of 10th graders (78 percent) say it is fairly or very easy to get alcohol if they want some and more than half of 8th graders report the same.
Work With Schools and the Community
Consistency of the message that alcohol and drugs are off-limits needs to be communicated. To ensure this happens, parents should work with their children’s schools, with other members in the community and the local government. Here are the goals, as recommended by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in What You Can Do to Prevent Your Child from Drinking Alcohol:
- Schools and the community support as well as reward young people’s decision not to drink [and use drugs].
- Schools and the community identify and intervene early with children involved in underage drinking [and drug use].
- Make sure that rules about underage drinking [and drug use] are in place at home, in school, and in your community.
- Ensure that agreements of acceptable behavior are established, well-known, and consistently applied.
- No alcohol [or drugs] permitted at parties and social events at home or elsewhere where children are present.
Be Consistent and Loving, but Firm
Bottom line: it just isn’t possible for parents to be with their teens 24/7 to protect them from harm. But parents can and should do the best they can to prepare their teens to be able to handle pressure and temptations to use alcohol and drugs. It is a big part of parental responsibility. In fact, parents have the best chance of helping shape their teens’ attitudes and beliefs about alcohol and drugs by virtue of their own behavior. Above all, be loving parents. Keep the lines of communication open and honest. You and your children are in this together. You also want the best for their future. Give them the solid foundation they need to grow up with self-confidence, to be able to face life’s challenges and stresses and opportunities – without turning to alcohol and drugs. Keep conversations going from their early childhood through adolescence and the teen years. Be consistent, stay on message, be loving, but firm, and always be there for your children. It’s the best thing parents can do to keep teens away from alcohol and drugs – this summer and anytime of the year.