Pay attention to your kid’s school day. It may offer clues to mindset and the unfortunate possibility of substance use. MWM
Imagine that you are 16 years old and you’re in science class. The class is divided into groups, each focused on a science project. Suddenly a bully in your class throws a spitball at you. It hits you in the back of the neck and it hurts. Your group members see it and they laugh.
Or imagine being in the hallway talking to your girlfriend and you see her make eye contact with another guy. Or you might imagine that you are in PE class and you are the last one chosen to be on one of the two teams. Your embarrassment grows as everyone else is picked but you.
The point is that all these scenarios trigger feelings. Perhaps you’ve been in a similar situation, and as a result, you’ve felt anger, disappointment, disrespected, embarrassment, or shame. These are difficult feelings for someone to experience, let alone a teen who may not yet have the maturity to hold such strong feelings. To make matters worse, if a teen is experiencing difficulty at home (alcoholic parent, domestic violence, parental divorce, abusive parent, etc.) then the interactions at school may be making already existing feelings worse.
Yet, even without challenging situations at home, a teen can find it hard to be at school. In general, teens tend to experience the following:
- Fear of rejection
- Not wanting to be made fun of
- Not wanting to lose a friend
- Not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings
- The desire to appear grown up
- The desire to appear in control
- Not having a clear picture of other’s desire
- Not understanding how to avoid or handle a situation
- Not knowing how to say no
When a teen feels emotionally uncomfortable and especially if they feel overwhelmed by their feelings, they may be at risk to saying yes to drugs or alcohol. They may give in more easily to peer pressure, or they may even seek out drugs in order to feel better.
Parents and caregivers should keep in mind that strong emotional reactions can interfere with a teen’s ability to concentrate, focus, and use intellect. Logic and reason compared to emotional distress utilize two different parts of the brain. This is another reason teen’s may reach for drugs and alcohol – to help them do better in school if their emotional state continues to interfere with their ability to think clearly. As you might expect, the more that teens choose to use drugs and alcohol, the more they become vulnerable to addiction.
Typical reasons why a teen or young adult may be drawn to drugs include:
- peer pressure
- access to substances (even in the school environment)
- inability to say no
- inability to manage strong feelings
- to feel accepted
- manage the symptoms of a mental illness
- to do better academically
- to feel better
Teens spend a large amount of their time at school. The interactions they have with peers, teachers, principals, counselors, and coaches often influence how a teen feels about themselves, particularly because adolescence is a time when teens are so sensitive about who they are and how they fit in. If a teen frequently feels uncomfortable about themselves, they may choose to regularly use drugs or alcohol to feel better.
Unfortunately, the use of substances is often a downward spiral. As a teen continues to use drugs, the more a dependency on them grows. And the stronger the dependency, the harder it will be for a teen to function in school, in relationships, or at work.
If you are a parent or caregiver, consider the following suggestions to support your teen’s emotional stability, and ultimately, the ability to say no to drugs:
- Talk to your teen. Let them know you care and that you’re there to provide support. Let them know you’re interested in who they are and what they enjoy. Get to know your teen so that you feel you’re in touch with their life.
- Let your teen know you don’t approve of drug or alcohol use. Teens who know their parents disapprove of drug use are less likely to use. When teens get the message that their parents do not care or that their parents approve of their drug use, teens will often experiment and continue to use substances.
- Teach your teen how to have fun without substances. One of the biggest influences of substance use among teens is the idea that getting drunk or high creates a fun experience that they otherwise couldn’t have. If a teen knows that there are other exciting experiences available without the use of substances, they are more likely to say no.
These are a few suggestions for keeping your teen away from substances, even when interactions at school become challenging. However, if you find that your teen is experiencing great difficulty, don’t hesitate to seek the support of a mental health professional.
About Guest Blogger: Dr. Jeff Nalin, Psy.D.
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY17766), a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist and a Certified Youth Residential Treatment Administrator. Dr. Nalin is the Founder and Clinical Director of Paradigm Malibu and Paradigm San Francisco Adolescent Treatment Centers. He has been a respected leader in the field of emotional health, behavioral health and teen drug treatment for more than 15 years. During that time, Dr. Nalin has been responsible for the direct care of young people at multiple institutions of learning including; The Los Angeles Unified School District, the University of California at San Diego, Santa Monica College, and Pacific University. He was instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
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