Ah, summer break: a time for teens to recharge and decompress after a grueling school year. But with this long-awaited downtime comes a newfound sense of freedom that can prove risky for young people on the cusp of adulthood. Studies show that June and July show the highest rates of first-time use of alcohol, cannabis, and nicotine among teenagers. No school, no homework, no sports, no structure – without the day-to-day routine of school, parents should take steps to revisit their expectations around alcohol and other drugs with their kids before summer break kicks off.
In recent years, parents have repeatedly cited mental health as their top concern for the well-being of their children. Close behind is the pressing issue of alcohol and other drugs. It’s important for parents to recognize that adolescents grappling with mental health issues are particularly vulnerable to substance abuse, and conversely, those who engage in the use of alcohol and other drugs during their formative years are more prone to anxiety and depression later in life.
But there are reasons for optimism. Despite the constant stream of alarming headlines about Gen Z’s mental health, positive trends around substance use are emerging. While cannabis and nicotine use has seen a slight uptick among teens in recent years, most other substances have been on a steady decline in many regions across the world for several decades. This research can be surprising for many adults who may assume that the increased legalisation of cannabis and the rise of teen vaping have normalised substance use as a rite of passage. However, this normative belief is false. This disconnect between the perception of teens’ behaviours around substance use and what is actually happening is the basis for one of the most effective prevention strategies today.
Prevention That Works
As adolescents, many of us may recall hearing slogans like “Don’t do drugs” and “Just Say No” from anti-drug education programs implemented by schools in the 1980s. However, research has shown that prevention strategies based on scare tactics, moralistic appeals, and simplistic messages are destined to fail. So what does work?
Prevention Ed recommends approaches that are evidence-based and grounded in psychology and behavioral science to effectively prevent alcohol and other drug use. The social norms approach is based on the social norms theory, which suggests that our behavior is influenced by our perceptions of our peers’ actions and beliefs. In turn, when adolescents overestimate the prevalence of alcohol and other drug use among their peers, they are more likely to engage in those behaviors themselves. Conversely, when adolescents have an accurate perception of alcohol and other drug use among their peers, their risk of using substances declines. Consistently correcting misperceptions directly leads to a decrease in alcohol and other drug use.
In almost every community worldwide, students, teachers, and parents overestimate the prevalence of substance use among their peers, emphasizing the need for accurate information and dispelling common misconceptions.
To bridge the gap between perceived substance use and actual use, effective prevention should rely on real data. Take, for example, the statistics on 30-day cannabis use in the United States in 2022: in year 13, 20% of students reported use, while 12% of year 11 students reported use and only 5% of year 9 students.
Parent Talking Point: It’s important to note that these numbers are often lower than what adults may expect. Overestimating teen substance use only perpetuates these misconceptions and can increase the likelihood of actual substance use among teens. Sharing the statistics with your teen can help them realize that the majority of their peers have not used cannabis in the past 30 days. They may feel relief! Remember, for many teens, fitting in can feel like the most important thing in the world, and if they make the choice to delay use, they are already fitting in. So next time your child claims that “everyone is doing it,” remind them that the reality is far from their perception.
Delaying Use & The Developing Brain
Instead of a zero-tolerance “don’t do drugs” attitude, Prevention Ed takes the modern approach that emphasizes delaying the use of alcohol and other drugs Research shows that the earlier a teenager uses alcohol or other drugs, the higher their risk of developing an addiction. Each year a teen delays use, they reduce the likelihood of future addiction and substance abuse. Delaying the use of alcohol and other drugs is the number one protective factor for teens.
Ages 15-21 are the most formative years for brain development, with the human brain reaching full maturity at age 25. The prefrontal cortex is the last area to develop, making adolescence a more vulnerable time for making an unhealthy or impulsive choice. Think back to a time when your child got into trouble and you asked them, “What were you thinking?” and their response was, “I don’t know.” Believe it or not, they were telling the truth. This common experience is explained in part by the mismatch between the two parts of the developing brain, the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system.
The midbrain’s limbic system is similar to an overcharged Ferrari engine, constantly seeking pleasure and craving dopamine. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and risk evaluation, is like a set of bicycle brakes that are not yet fully developed. which can lead to impulsive behavior and risky decision-making. Parents should be aware of this during their teen’s development and work to provide guidance and support.
Parent Talking Point: In order to support your child’s health, wellness, and brain development, it’s important to communicate to them that you care about their well-being. Encourage them to delay the use of alcohol and other drugs in order to protect their developing brains, and emphasize that this is their one chance to do so. By setting clear expectations around delaying substance use and prioritizing their long-term health, you can help your child make healthy decisions that will benefit them for years to come.
Stress, the root cause
Stress is the top reported reason why students say they use alcohol and other drugs. Adolescents face a tremendous amount of stress, and their developing brains are more sensitive to it than adults. In 2023, teenagers are navigating a variety of stressors, from social media pressures to adjusting to new schools, to asking their crush out, and everything in between. While they may not have adult responsibilities like mortgages or business meetings, how they learn to manage stress now will impact their ability to manage it in the future. As models for handling stress, adults play a crucial role in shaping their adolescent’s approach.
Something to Consider: How do you cope with stress in front of your teenager? Do you reach for a glass of wine or do you go for a workout, call a friend, or take a relaxing bath? By modeling and discussing healthy coping skills, you’re giving your teen some ideas about healthy stress management. Encourage your teen to find activities that work for them and prioritize self-care as a family.
Having The Conversation: Tips for Parents
A great place to start the conversation with your child is by reviewing the five primary risk factors that increase an individual’s likelihood of developing an addiction. These are known as the FACTS:
- Individuals with a family history of addiction are at a higher risk of developing an addiction themselves. In an age-appropriate way, share your family’s history with your child.
- Research shows that the earlier a person starts using substances, the greater their risk of becoming addicted. Promote the delayed use of alcohol or other drugs.
- The stronger a person’s compulsion to use alcohol or other drugs, the higher risk they are to become addicted. If an adolescent delays use, they don’t have to worry about experiencing cravings.
- A high tolerance means the developing brain is being exposed to higher levels of alcohol or other drugs and this is a risk factor.
- What behaviors or messages on alcohol are teens exposed to? Do they think that “everyone is doing it”? Do you live in a state or country where cannabis is legal? What misinformation about vaping did they get from TikTok this week? It’s important as parents, we guide our children to consider their surroundings and the conflicting messages and misinformation they may receive regarding substance use and its effects.
When it comes to substance use prevention, it’s not just having one sixty-minute conversation with your teen, it’s sixty-one-minute conversations. As the summer approaches, it’s important that we have an open and honest dialogue with our children about our expectations regarding alcohol, drugs, and their associated risks. Make it crystal clear what your family’s rules are on this topic and what consequences your children can expect if they make the decision to engage in these risky behaviors.
Effective prevention requires a combination of arming our children with the necessary information to make informed, healthy decisions and engagement by parents who are committed to ongoing communication and guidance. By having these conversations, we can help our children develop the tools they need to navigate the challenges they may face now and persevere in choices for their future.
Katie Greeley, LCSW
Katie is a licensed therapist who founded Prevention Education Solutions. With over a decade of experience as an addiction counselor and provider of prevention services to international schools around the globe, she brings extensive expertise to the field. Prevention Education Solutions takes a modern, evidence-based approach to alcohol and other drug prevention, offering prevention education in over 40 countries, as well as across the United States.