Combatting Youth Substance Abuse with Modeling

by Gary Gilles

substance abuseIt’s not terribly surprising to anyone that when a child is exposed to negative influences that it tends to promote negative behavior in that child. For example, if a young person becomes involved in a gang, that participation is likely to repel them away from their biological family and cause them to spiral deeper into the gang culture and all that entails.

A recent study validated this assumption of negative exposure leading to negative outcomes but measured its effect on a young person’s susceptibility toward substance abuse. The findings showed that the three most potent negative influences on later substance abuse were engagement with delinquent peers, family-related arrests and poor impulse control.

The common denominator

When I read this study I wondered what the common denominator was in all three of these risk factors. It’s a complicated issue for certain, but it seems fairly evident that something has broken down in the homes of these young people. My first inclination is wonder about the lack of healthy parental modeling in these young peoples’ lives as a significant factor that puts them at higher risk of substance abuse.

When a child has impulse control problems, for example, it raises the question of the child has had much adult instruction on how to regulate emotion. Children need for their parents to help them make sense of emotion when they are very young. The most powerful way a parent can do this is to model for the child what it looks like to manage anger, disappointment and sadness by responding appropriately in a given situation and talking it though in an instructive but loving way. I doubt many of the young people in this study had that luxury growing up.

Add to this the fact that many of the kids in this study had family members with arrest records, which implies an association with other lawless individuals. So, it is not surprising that teens might also choose peers cut of the same cloth.

The burdens of adolescence

Many teens today feel as though they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Their families may be splitting through divorce, they are stressed about their grades and getting into college, many have intense relationships, body image battles, low self-esteem, uncertainty about the future and the list goes on. Many teens today feel as though they are living in a pressure cooker and are barely hanging on. To help numb the intensity of the emotional struggle, an increasing number of teens are turning to alcohol and drugs as a means of coping with that stress. The worst part is that many parents don’t know that their teen is so emotionally overwhelmed by life.

Here are some suggestions of what you can do to help build a strong relationship with your teen that could act as a hedge against substance abuse.

  • Help your teen make sense of their feelings by showing interest. Listen carefully to things your teen gets excited about, such as friends, video games, weekend plans, dates, etc. When you hear emotion in their words or tone of voice gently pursue those feelings. For example, say your son comes home talking about the latest video game all of his friends are getting. Instead of rolling your eyes or asking how he intends to pay for that new game, try asking (with sincerity) what he likes most about the game, what he finds challenging or exciting about how the game is played. You might find that he is much more engaged with you and that there is more to talk about.
  • Model restraint. At this age there is no shortage of topics that can prompt a disagreement between parents and teens. So, knowing that tendency, take the high road. Delay stating your point of view and ask your teen to tell you theirs. For example, your teen says she wants to stay out an hour beyond the normal curfew. You could immediately say no or you could ask her to explain why she wants to stay out later. The idea is to engage her in new ways while discussing the issues in a respectful, loving way.
  • Get to know your teen’s friends.You can do this by making your home an appealing place for your teen to hang out with friends. Have a movie night at your home, a cookout, a video game marathon, etc. This gives you an opportunity to build a friendly rapport with their friends and also gives you more to talk about. It also is a way your teen sees his friends as an extension of the family. He then doesn’t have to choose between friends and family.

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