How to steer your teens in the right direction
By Aimee Stern
The first year of high school is a vulnerable time, often referred to as the bridge year because young adolescents are making the tough transformation to being teenagers. As kids get older and more independent, it’s hard to keep constant watch on what they do, and relationships with parents change as teens pull away and into their own worlds.
Kids with families undergoing major changes, such as a divorce or separation, are more likely to begin drinking before age 15. “The most vulnerable teens have family problems and a genetic predisposition to alcoholism,” says Tammy L. Hughes, an associate professor of school psychology at Duquesne University. “Low attachment to school and lack of community involvement are also major risk factors.”
Sandy was just that boy. He came from a family that had a history of addiction. On his first day of public high school, Sandy says he felt lost amidst a crowd of more than 900 kids, few of whom he knew. He hid his discomfort by getting drunk. “I had an instant physical response to alcohol,” he remembers. “I felt like I’d come into my natural self, free of all self-criticism and fear.”
So how do caregivers provide their kids with adequate tools to navigate the tumultuous high school years? Foremost, parents must remain vigilant and engaged. Although it is tempting for parents to pull away from their emotionally charged children during these times of teenage turmoil, the best defense is a strong offense. Get in the game.
Watch for Warning Signs
How can you tell if a teenager is developing a problem with alcohol? These warning signs should be considered serious red flags:
Grades slip: If a good student’s grades start declining or an average student starts failing, it could be an indication trouble is brewing.
A new group of friends and old ones abandoned: Teens who drink and/or do drugs begin to hang out with kids who they know are also involved in that behavior and are a ready source of both.
Requests for money with vague explanations: Teens who are partying need money to buy alcohol. If money starts disappearing from handbags, perhaps at family parties, or kids start asking for more cash than usual, it could mean that money is spent in ways you don’t want.
Memory loss or risky behavior: As technology gets more sophisticated and we can look deeper into the human brain, scientists are learning that behavior we once thought was characteristic of teens is actually brain development. Alcohol use can affect parts of the brain that store memory and are used for decision-making. So if your teen doesn’t remember what he did last night, chances are he could be drinking. If your teen gets into a fight or stays out beyond curfew multiple times, that could also be the result of alcohol affecting decision-making.
Mood swings: Many teens are argumentative, especially with adults, but major swings in behavior or mood are warning signs. You should be wary if one moment a teen is happy and giddy and the next she’s depressed or falling asleep all the time.
Be a Positive Influence
Teens who are first learning about alcohol or drugs may have questions about what it feels like to participate in using them. They may ask about your own experiences. Remember to highlight the time you drank too much and threw up all over your friend’s dorm room rather than the time you danced on the bar all night.
“Adolescents have well-developed sonar systems to detect hypocrisy,” says Rebecca Kullback, a family therapist who runs Metropolitan Counseling Associates in Bethesda, Md. “The moment they catch you in a lie, you lose all credibility. But if you talk about your own experiences in an honest, direct way, they can have a real impact on a teen’s decision-making.”
Another positive way to help is to offer to spend time with a teen. Sandy’s parents were able to watch him closely, and when his grades started to slip and they saw him drunk a couple of times, they sent him to a treatment center in the Montana wilderness to get sober. Sandy returned home six weeks later and never touched alcohol or drugs again. Now in his early 20s and pursuing a graduate degree in psychology, Sandy wants to help teens avoid the mistakes he made.
Aimee Stern is a freelance writer and author. Her book, Delaying That First Drink: A Parents’ Guide, is available online and free of charge here. She is also the mother of two teenagers.