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How to Understand Your Teen

You remember your teen years, but it may still be difficult for you to understand your own teenager. After all, times have changed, as has the substance abuse scene. Your child faces different pressures than you did at their age, and may feel compelled to use drugs or alcohol. If your teen is abusing substances, you must take action to stop it.

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6 min read

The Tumultuous Teen Years

You were a teenager once. You may have encountered the same ups and downs, first experiences and overwhelming realizations as your own children are experiencing now. Adolescence is a tumultuous time to say the least.

In fact, a recent survey by the American Psychological Association reveals that American teens are more stressed than adults. On a scale of 1–10, adults averaged a 5.1 and teenagers averaged a 5.8. And these inordinate stress levels are no doubt worsened by the common adolescent refrain that “parents just don’t understand.”

In all too many cases, the feeling is justified. While you can’t know everything your teen is thinking, it’s important that you do your best to empathize. They need you to be a friend just as much as they need you to set rules. And the better you understand your teen, the more you can help them when something is wrong, such as a substance habit or the struggles that can trigger one.

Why Teens Use Drugs and Alcohol

Friends sitting on sofa and using phones

Dating, choosing friends, finding jobs, taking tests, writing papers and temptation to party — every generation of teenagers can relate to these challenges. And with the Internet, the expanding drug scene and the constantly changing job market, today’s teens have more to think about than ever.

If your teen experiments with drugs or alcohol — which 24% and 35% of 12th graders have done in the past month, respectively — it’s not a freak occurrence. Millions of kids do it, no matter their gender, heritage, economic status or grade point average. Rather than point fingers or jump to conclusions, consider the reasons why teens use drugs or alcohol.

Peer Pressure

Peer pressure can harm your teen

In one way or another, peer pressure is involved in around half of first-time substance use. This doesn’t imply that teens are being backed into walls and forced to use. It’s a blanket term to describe any influence from friends or classmates. Keeping up with peers and “fitting in” are subtle and often subconscious ways that teens wind up entangled with drugs and alcohol. If your son or daughter is at a party and someone hands them a beer or a joint, they may take it without even thinking. If they decide not to, they may worry about what the reaction would be, or that they’re missing out on something that everybody gets to experience. Peer pressure is a daily fixture of middle and high school life, and it helps to realize this when trying to explain your teen’s actions.

Curiosity

Teen girl tries e-cigarette

Of course, a trait shared amongst teenagers is a natural curiosity. Their minds are expanding faster than they know what to do with, and they’re learning of their own power and independence in the world. Teens may quell this curiosity by reading books, taking harder courses, joining clubs or traveling. They may also wonder about various substances — why people do them and what the experience is like. As they grow up, they see adults drink alcohol, they see advertisements for cigarettes, and they hear about drugs through movies, TV shows and word-of-mouth. By the time a teen has access to these things, the curiosity can become too much to bear. In the mind of a teen, the only way to really know might be to do it yourself.

Anxiety

Anxious teenager

Stress is heavy — and as we mentioned earlier, teens today are outrageously stressed out. If school responsibilities and social pressures aren’t enough, teenagers regularly face added anxiety from trouble at home, poor self image and a growing awareness of how the world works. Around 1 in 8 children develop a diagnosable anxiety disorder — a serious mental health problem that usually goes unnoticed and untreated. Stress, anxiety and depression can become debilitating for someone in the teenage years, and rather than open up to an adult, turning to drugs or alcohol can start to appear like a way out. Teens and adults alike often “self-medicate” when overwhelmed by life’s hurdles. Your teen may be struggling far more than you realize.

Other Factors

teenage pot and booze at a house party

A teen’s decision to try drugs is rarely black and white. Young men and women out there may develop a substance problem due to a combination of factors. It would benefit you greatly to take these into account when trying to understand your teen.

  • Genetics – your family history may explain several of your child’s traits, such as their hair color, their laugh or their allergies. It’s also a contributing factor to alcoholism, addiction to illicit drugs and several co-occurring mental disorders in teens (e.g. anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, ADHD, etc.)
  • Environment – take a close look at their school, your neighborhood, and even around your home. Children are proverbial sponges when it comes to their environment. If they grow up in a neighborhood where drug use is common, it can mold their future behaviors and points of view on the matter.
  • Social Media – boys and girls today spend their entire lives on the Internet, and more than 90% of young people have social media accounts (things like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram). Research shows that exposure to the images on social media plays a major role in influencing teen behaviors like drinking and smoking. If you buy your kids a smartphone and allow them to browse the Web freely, keep in mind the breadth of what they come across and how this shapes their perspective.
  • Co-Occurring Disorders – substance issues are often only half the story. Underlying mental health problems plague millions of kids, and tend to either result in (or, in part, result from) addictions to drugs or alcohol. Monitor your child’s progress in school, along with their behaviors and attitudes, for signs of a possible co-occurring mental disorder. Only a portion of the kids who struggle with these disorders get properly diagnosed and treatment for dual diagnosis. This sets them up for failure and compounding problems, not the least of which is substance abuse.

Communication Is Priceless

Observing from a distance just doesn’t cut it. The only way a parent can ever really understand their child is through constant communication. Talk to your teen about drugs. Open, honest and heartfelt conversations are the driving force behind the best parent-child relationships — not once in awhile, but every chance you get. This will bring your family close and lay the foundation for a lifelong connection. It will also make it easy to spot early warning signs of a problem like addiction, and allow you to address them before they become something much more difficult to resolve.

Your teen is an individual, just like you. Treat them like one, and you’ll have a much better understanding of what makes them tick. You may also learn a thing or two about yourself in the process.

Does My Teen Need Help?

If you see signs of substance abuse or addiction in your child, act now. The earlier you address this problem, the easier it will be to break the cycle and get your teen back on track. Your child’s future is in your hands.

Begin by contacting a treatment professional such as your family doctor or a local addiction counselor. You can also get in touch with one of our advisors at TeenRehabCenter.org, with whom you can speak for free.

We know how scary it is for a parent to discover that their child is addicted. Remember that you are not alone in this — we at TeenRehabCenter.org are here for you. If you do not know where to begin, just start by calling us. We can provide advice about next steps to take, recommend vetted treatment options, give you details about the cost of rehab, or simply listen to you. Addiction doesn’t wait to take charge — why should you? Call us for a free, confidential discussion.

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