Dr. Tobin Talks to Parents About Drugs: Part One

Article by Dr. Michael Tobin
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Before we talk about the specifics of teenage drug use let me first mention the obvious. General drug use and/or abuse are an accepted part of our society. Hardly anyone questions the basic assumption that you take drugs to reduce tension, to lose weight, to concentrate, to get rid of a headache, to feel sociable, to sleep better, to kill a cold, etc., etc., etc….

Drugs temporarily hide those nasty annoyances that accompany life at the end of the Twentieth Century. Why inhale steam and drink vinegar when you can take an antihistamine tablet to kill that nasty cold? The fact that prolonged use of antihistamines might be dangerous is another story.

Feeling tense? Too much pressure at work? Trouble with your partner? Not enough time to keep up with all the demands? Don’t change your lifestyle. Pop a pill. You can have instant relaxation without any difficult decisions.

When is the last time you went to a social event and there was no alcohol? It would be considered in rather poor taste not to offer your dinner guest a drink. Why? Because alcohol relaxes us. It enables us to be more outgoing and less self-conscious.

How often have we felt frazzled and exhausted and said in desperation, “I must have a cigarette,” or “I’ve got to have a cup of coffee?” When we wonder why our kids turn out they way they do, I suggest we first look in the mirror.

Another point. I don’t know who may be reading this right now. Yet, I can say with a degree of confidence that at least 40% of us have smoked pot and a smaller number of us have tried other illegal substances. For the sake of prudence, I’m being conservative. In reality, the numbers are most likely higher. If we factor in alcohol and legal mood altering drugs such as Valium, then the numbers are close to 100%.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not on a soapbox condemning the moral failures of contemporary society. What I do want to do is portray the context in which teen drug use and abuse occurs. Like other serious teen problems, such as anorexia, pregnancy, violence and suicide, drug use and abuse are logical outcomes of the society in which we live.

Does that mean we just throw our hands up in frustration and say, “What can I do? I can’t fight the influences out there.” Or, alternatively, out of fear, should we try to over-protect our children and, thereby risk either breaking their spirit or severing their connection with us?

The answer is obviously no. You don’t have to stand by passively or over-react in anger while your teen experiments or abuses drugs. First and foremost, it is important that you be informed. There are excellent sites, pamphlets and books on teen drug use and I would strongly recommend that you understand the signs of drug use. In Part II I will talk more about this and I will recommend sites and resources for information on teen drug use and abuse.

A teen who experiments with marijuana is not the same as one who is using cocaine or heroine. Yes, in a small percentage of cases marijuana use can lead to more serious drug abuse but this is the exception, not the norm. An informed parent will not approach his or her teen in panic but from a place of concern and love. There is nothing wrong with a parent keeping his eyes open and asking questions, not in an accusing way, but in a caring way.

How Do You Know If Your Teenagers Are Using Drugs?

They’ll tell you either directly or indirectly.

Direct Communication: I know a number of teens who have an open relationship with their folks and have told them about their experimentation with marijuana. It’s very unlikely that any young person who feels close enough with mom or dad to keep them informed would be the kind of kid who would be likely to be a serious drug user. One of the most important antidotes to teen drug abuse is an open parent-child relationship. It doesn’t happen by accident. Parents who respect, listen, and discipline with love and understanding are parents who will have children who respect, listen, accept and internalize their parents’ guidance.

The teenage years are a time of experimentation – a time for them to learn their own truth about the world and a time to figure out who they are. This learning process doesn’t take place in a society in which traditions and set standards of behavior are passed from generation to generation. It occurs in the midst of the MTV culture in which sex, drugs and violence are glorified. It is in that environment in which our youth make choices and discover themselves. Is it any wonder that they trip over themselves in this process of self-discovery? This is precisely the reason why we parents must play an important role in the lives of our teens. They need us even if it appears that they could care less. However, what they need are parents who have a strong sense of values, the ability to communicate in a language of understanding and a vivid memory of their own teenage years.

Indirect Communication: Teenagers can’t help themselves. They must inform, arouse, shake up or shock their parents. They are compelled by some primal need to relate to their parents, to force a reaction that says, “I know you’re there.” If the relationship is good, then the teen’s behavior falls within those parameters the parents and child agree are reasonable.

If the relationship is distant and hostile, then the teen’s behavior takes on a different significance. It is no longer about finding oneself; it is about forcing the parent to react. It is no mere coincidence that most adolescent drug abusers have serious conflicts with their parents. Their drug abuse is, in part, designed to force the parent to engage, albeit, under rather unpleasant circumstances.

Your children will “tell” you they have a drug problem when their grades start slipping, their old friends start avoiding them, their behavior seems different and their appearance starts changing. Those are not tell tale signs of drug abuse but they may be alarming enough to force a reaction. If the relationship is not good, then the typical parental response will be to criticize the external manifestations – the clothes, hair, rings in strange places and the general attitude. This only pushes the teen further away and leaves the parent frustrated and angry. What is really necessary is for the parent to use sincere, open communication to find out whether his child is involved in normal adolescent exploration or whether he is endangering himself with drugs. When the door is slammed shut, it’s an invitation for a crisis.

I never fail to be amazed at the extent to which teenagers will utilize the most self-destructive tactics in order to attempt to defeat their parents. Their behavior and attitude screams, “I don’t give a damn and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Underneath the tough exterior is the hurt child who desperately needs love and guidance. Without it, a teenager is a prime candidate for the instant pleasure that drugs can provide.

There’s a poignant expression that captures the dilemma of the abuser – “You can never get enough of what you don’t need.” In other words, be it food, alcohol or drugs the hunger that drives a person to abuse is never satiated by the object of his abuse. Love fills, drugs numb. Purpose and meaning provide direction; their absence leads to emptiness and cynicism. Drugs provide powerful sensations that conceal the desire for depth and spirituality.

It is our role as parents to help our children to understand themselves, to learn how to make intelligent choices and to impart values and meaning that will guide them through the challenging journey of life. If we don’t do our job, then they will look for the most expedient answers.

Let’s not be replaced by drugs.

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