Substance abuse among tweens is sky-rocketing across the country. It’s not just media hype– experimentation with drugs and alcohol is no longer just for kids on the fringes and is regularly occurring earlier than most parents realize.
Unlike most parents’ middle school experiences, experimenting with substances in 7th or 8th grade is not uncommon. I work strictly with tweens and teens who share stories with me that their parents would never imagine to be real. In fact, many who begin to dabble with substance use in high school report that they feel they “started late” when compared to their peers.
What’s a parent to do?
First it is important to recognize the science. There is no argument that the human brain continues to develop well into the mid-20s. In fact, some report that the tween brain develops at a pace so rapid that the only more dramatic period of growth is during infancy.
Scientifically speaking it makes sense to take a hard-line on substance abuse, especially during the tween years. Studies are routinely showing that the longer a kid stays away from substance use (and the longer their brain can therefore develop without exposure to drugs or alcohol), the less likely they are to develop a substance addiction in their lifetime.
Second, stay on top of what is trending. For parents today, it requires a serious effort to stay informed about the drug scene. While alcohol and marijuana are still the most popular and drugs like ecstasy are quite prevalent, it’s also worth noting that tweens often abuse easy-to-find OTC cough suppressants such as Robotusin or Coricidin for quick highs. Others will raid their parents’ medical cabinet to experiment with prescription drugs such as Oxycontin, Xanax, Vicodin and ADHD drugs like Ritalin.
The emergence of “designer drugs ” which produce significant highs, are largely legal, and go undetected on drug tests are presenting a new sort of challenge for even the most diligent parents. Substances like synthetic marijuana (known commonly as Spice or K2), salvia (famously used by Miley Cyrus), and even bath salts are as easy to obtain as a pack of cigarettes in many states and are quite popular among the tween population.
Finally, try to understand why substance abuse is becoming more common during these formative tween years and discuss it with your kids. Sometimes it’s as simple as a tween modeling the behavior of their older siblings. The majority of tweens want to be perceived as mature and participating is their attempt to be cool. Many tweens are struggling socially. For some kids, becoming a partier gives them an immediate group to belong to. Other tweens are self-medicating for depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
I cannot covey how many highly-invested, highly-educated parents I’ve worked with who had no clue that their tween was experimenting with drugs or alcohol until something serious occurred.
Here are some tips to help you navigate this slippery slope with your tween:
- Drug test and breathalyze intermittently but regularly. If your kid knows you are testing, they will often think twice. This also allows your kid an easy excuse to say no when facing tough peer pressure from friends.
- Take a zero tolerance stance. Tweens don’t typically practice anything in moderation. Think along the terms of red light or green light.
- Do not tell your tween of your substance use history until they are through high school. Yes, it will be tempting to open up and share with a curious tween, but try to avoid it. While you may be stating, “Yes, but…” all your tween hears is, “Yes!” After all, you turned out okay so how bad could it be?
- Monitor your tweens cell phone and Internet use. Tweens discuss their interest in substance use with their peers. This is a great way to catch issues either before it occurs or at least before it becomes a serious problem.
- Have tangible and immediate consequences if you catch your tween experimenting. Yelling or lecturing at your tween is a meaningless annoyance to them. By calmly issuing the consequence for their choice and by following through on your discipline, you set a clear standard.
- Keep your tween busy. Although you do not want to overload your kids, the more structure they have, the less down time they will have to experiment. After all, bored kids tend to find their way to trouble faster.
- Know the key terms. Kids have created an alternate vocabulary for drugs and alcohol so that parents do not pick up on their discussions. Visit my websitewww.drjerryweichman.com to learn these terms or follow me on Twitter using the handle @drjerryweichman for additional ways you can help your child.