As a teen growing up in the Philadelphia area, when summer rolled around, I was dedicated to the pool, the Jersey Shore, Rita’s Water Ice, and unlimited sleepovers. As an eighth-grade graduate, I looked forward to the longer days and freedom that summer had always provided. No school, no homework, no sports … no structure. I had no idea this summer I would smoke marijuana and drink alcohol for the first time.
For all teens, more first-time use of nicotine, marijuana, and alcohol occurs during the summer months of June and July than the rest of the year, according to research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The more devastating reality? The earlier youth engage in any substance use, the more likely they are to develop a substance use disorder later in life.
Many factors went into my choice to get high that summer — my false perception that marijuana was harmless, believing “everyone in high school smoked weed,” and, most importantly, thinking I needed to get high to fit in. Ultimately, what I lacked at this pivotal crossroads in my life was adequate drug prevention education empowering me to delay use.
Parents need to know the real risks associated with teen alcohol and other drug use. The most important risk factor for parents to be aware of is an individual’s age of first use of any substance, due to the vulnerability of the developing teenage brain.
The brain may not finish developing until age 25 — and the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and moderating social behavior, is the last region to mature, making teens uniquely vulnerable to impulsive decisions and higher-risk behavior.
Genetic predisposition is another risk factor. A history of addiction in your family puts your children at higher risk. One more relevant factor: tolerance. Increased tolerance for any substance means more of that substance is required to experience intoxication. This means greater exposure for teens, further impacting the developing brain.
Many myths surround tolerance; in my work with parents, the most pervasive is that teens need to “learn how to drink.” There is no research indicating a young, still-developing brain will benefit from an earlier introduction to alcohol.
The perception that “everyone is doing it” is often based on a highly visible minority sample of teens who are engaging in alcohol or other drug use. A single social media post about a high school party has the potential to shift perceptions of drinking norms in a community.
I often ask teens, “What is the most frustrating response from your parents when you ask them why you can’t do something?” The unanimous answer I’ve heard in cities as different as Philadelphia and Shanghai is: “Because I said so.” For teens, this parental response adds insult to injury, and fails to address their real question: “Why?”
Parents, it is your responsibility to help yours teen identify their “why?” This summer, set clear expectations that they will remain substance free, and if not, there will be reasonable consequences. If an expectation is broken, follow through with those consequences. Keep talking about alcohol and other drugs, ask their opinions, and listen to what they are saying. If you hear something that doesn’t seem accurate, take the time to look up facts from a trusted source like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institute for Drug Abuse. Most importantly, model healthy behavior around your own alcohol use — children pick up on adults’ relationships with alcohol well before the teen years.
My “why?” could have been caution due to my family’s genetic predisposition, or knowing that if I chose not to get drunk or high, I would already be fitting in with my peers. Without information, my “why?” turned into a “why not?” that summer. I had no way of knowing my first use of marijuana would lead to eight more years of substance use, missed opportunities, health consequences, and damaged relationships — resulting in me seeking treatment just before my 21st birthday.
Parents, your teens have a lot to say on this topic — keep talking, and more importantly, keep listening. Addiction is much easier to prevent than it is to treat. There is no risk to being pro-active about prevention. It’s not one, 60-minute “drug talk” to check off that box — it’s 60, one-minute conversations with you serving as a prefrontal cortex until theirs fully develops. Start this summer.