Can you alcohol-proof a teen?

One of the most common concerns raised by parents, teachers and carers of teens is alcohol and substance use. The concerns are solid. Given that an adolescent brain is still growing and at a very rapid pace, any damage caused while it is still developing could have a big impact on future brain health.

Generally speaking, with the growth in teenage body and brain comes a growth in the desire to experience new things. Those new things need to be exciting and not the usual day to day hum of the family household. Changes to the pleasure centre of the brain during the teen years mean that the young person can become more dissatisfied with home and want to push boundaries, meet others, fit in with others, and spend more time with people outside of their family. This lure of a wider world can bring more exposure to things not experienced in the home and things for which young people have some information, but not necessarily wisdom.

The rapid brain development that occurs in the teen years does not occur evenly across the brain. The cortex which allows for critical thinking and problem solving is a little slower to develop. This means that there is an urge to try new things coupled with a lack of “sensibleness”. If exposed or offered alcohol or illicit substances, these, quite normal, brain changes, can impact decision making.

This means that teens are driven to want to seek and experience more in the world, but do not yet have an adult way of thinking about the risks and consequences.

Schools and government agencies spend much time on providing the education that young people need to make informed decisions. Drug and alcohol information is being incorporated into school curriculums very early.

When my youngest was eight years old, he came home excited because a boy in his class knew how to spell dexamphetamine!

It is important that young people have the basic information necessary to know how to take care of themselves and others with respect to alcohol and substance use, but the information alone may do little to impact on whether someone says “yes” to the experiences offered by alcohol and other illicit substances. Information does still not stop most teens, even the very best-behaved ones, from pushing the boundaries from time to time or spending time with other close friends who are frequently blurring the boundaries. The desire to fit in that comes during the teenage years is a strong determinant of teen behaviour and can definitely sway teen decision making.

Of course, individual teens will have different personalities. Some may be more anxious and want to experiment with alcohol and other drugs as a way of coping. Similarly, some may be quite pessimistic and hopeless and say “yes” when offered alcohol or drugs as a way to manage low feelings. Some teens are definitely impulsive and act without too much careful thought when offered new experiences. Some may enjoy the thrill of alcohol and drugs because they enjoy sensation seeking.

Exciting new research from Patricia Conrad and her colleagues has found that prevention of teen alcohol and substance use (particularly, cannabis) works better when individual’s personalities are targeted. She has found that using Cognitive Behaviour Therapies (even just two sessions) that target the different thinking associated with each of these personality groups can assist in ways beyond just education alone. By ensuring that teens have coping strategies specific to their particular risk/personality type we seem to be able to protect more teens from dangerous alcohol or substance illicit intake.

So, there is no definite way of completely alcohol- or substance-proofing your teen, but there are things that can be done that might contribute to preventing early alcohol or substance-related harm.

  • Be clear about your own values around alcohol and drugs and practice what you preach. Healthy adult drinking means no more than 1 or 2 standard drinks each day/night with one or two alcohol-free days/nights per week. If you need help with your own alcohol or substance use, be sure to get it.
  • Provide your child with information and talk to them about the information. When they bring home those handouts from “yet another D and A session”, be sure to read them because the knowledge we have about different illicit substances can change quickly. See if you can engage them in a conversation about whether they thought the session was good and what they think might make it better.
  • Get to know your child’s friends and, if possible, the parents of their friends so that you can establish good communication and a safety network.
  •  If your teen is having a party, register the party with your local police. The Police have lots of handy tips on safe partying. Sadly, Police attend many unsafe parties so they know what they look like.
  • Know your child. If they are a risk taker, ensure that they have other ways to meet this drive in them through sports and activities. If they are prone to anxiety or low mood, it can be handy to get them to see someone who can talk to them about expanding their coping tool box in healthy ways.
  • Spend regular time with your teen. Even though they are growing fast, there should always be some activity or interest (music, cooking, sport, pets) that you share and that you can use to stay connected with them through the teen years.

While a growing teen brain is a marvellous thing that allows a young person to be able to be so capable and so clever at so many levels, teens cannot do it all on their own.  There’s no way to pop a teen into a magic, protective bubble.  There is good reason why they are likely to push against too much protection as the teen years are the ones where they try on lots of things and begin to discover the sort of adult they will become.   It’s hard to do this if there is no room for mistakes.  As seemingly independent as they may be, teenagers still need their parents and carers to provide good boundaries, good examples as well as warmth and loving kindness.

For more information about teenage mental health, you may like to pop along to a workshop.

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