8 Mistakes Parents Make With Teen Substance Abuse

Any teen can develop a substance abuse problem—from any kind of background, any kind of home, and any part of the world. Parents are not to blame for the choices their teens make, but there are several common mistakes that make it more likely that your teen could develop an addiction.

1. Not Addressing Your Child’s Mental Health Problems

Statistics show that a high proportion of teenagers have a mental health condition of one kind of or another, ranging from depression and anxiety to ADHD or eating disorders. It’s a tough world for teenagers out there right now, and as their brains grow and develop, it’s not surprising that mental health problems can crop up. A big mistake parents make, however, is not seeking help for their teen’s mental health, just assuming it’s all a phase that the child will grow out of. They might, or they might not, but pre-existing mental health problems are a big risk factor in addiction.

2. Being Dishonest About Your Own Drug Use

The conversation may be awkward, but the worst thing you can do is to lie. If you took drugs or drank too much in your youth, tell the truth if your teen challenges you on this. Explain why you regret the choices you made, and why with hindsight you would not want them to make the same mistakes. There is no evidence to show that admitting to your own past mistakes will make your child any more likely to experiment; in fact, it will probably make it less likely, as you will have de-glamorized the appeal. Who wants to do the same things Mom or Dad did?

3. Being Too Strict or Judgmental

It can be difficult to form an open, honest, loving relationship with a difficult teen, but your goal should be to parent so that your child feels able and willing to come to you at any time when they are in difficulty. If they think you’re going to over-react, lay down the law or fly off the handle, guess what? They’re going to hide the problem until it’s too late.

4. Ignoring Changes in Your Teen’s Behavior

You know your teen best, and you’re in the best position to spot behavioral changes. If your child suddenly loses interest in their school work, or switches their set of friends, or becomes more sociable (or less), or more hyperactive, or more sleepy—note the change, and tactfully ask about it. Often these behavioral changes are nothing to worry about and not related to addiction—but they could be, and it never hurts to start a conversation.

5. Thinking Your Teen is Too Intelligent to Take Drugs

If your teen is a good student and an all-around “good kid”, it’s tempting to think that your job is done, and that they’ve got the wisdom, intelligence and maturity to avoid drugs and alcohol. Not so, unfortunately. The prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for judgement decisions—is not fully mature until the early- to mid- twenties. Your good kid can still make bad calls.

6. Failing to Set Expectations

If you’re more of a friend to your teen than a parent, then they won’t know where the boundaries and limits are. Drugs and alcohol should have been discussed, and they should know your rules and your stance on this issue—but equally importantly, they should understand the boundaries and expectations in other areas of life, such as schoolwork, friends, staying out late, swearing, and anything else which matters in your home. Knowing these expectations and limits across the board will help to keep your teen on the rails.

7. Assuming Experimentation is Normal

It’s true that a high proportion of teens do experiment with alcohol and/or drugs at some point, and it’s also true that most of them do not go on to become addicts. However, addiction isn’t the only problem which can arise from drugs and alcohol: think car accidents, for example, or other law-breaking behavior. Help your teens understand how to say no and mean no, so that they can stay away from the type of experimentation that could end messily.

8. Putting Off Getting Help

If the worst happens and you discover that your teen does have a drug or alcohol problem, do not put off getting help. You may think that you can deal with it at home, or that it’s not so serious and won’t get any worse—wrong. Early intervention is a key factor in successfully resolving teen substance abuse problems, so seek professional help at the earliest possible opportunity.

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