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Teens, Drugs, and Pressure

Teens, Drugs, and PressureWhen we think of teens, drugs, and pressure, the word "peer" tends to add itself to the list. Peer pressure can determine the clothes teens wear (or covet), where they go in their free time, and what they do there. Peer pressure, along with curiosity and other influences, contributes to first drug use-alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana (in that order)-most often occurring at ages 12 to 14. This stage is also identified as the prime years for peer pressure susceptibility.Peer pressure also works in the opposite direction. About half of teens have no friends who are regular drinkers, and about seven out of ten don't have smokers or "druggies" in their circles. Recent data shows those ever-variable numbers rising-in the case of cigarettes, a dramatic rise. Even when friend choice is not deliberately based on those criteria, such social dynamics tend to reinforce themselves. It's one of many good reasons for parents to know their children's friends.While likelihood of drug use increases through the teen years, along with the likelihood of knowing drug users, those choices are less likely to be based on peer pressure as older teens grow into more self-assurance and self-directedness.

Another Kind of Pressure: "Simple" Stress

Some stressors and co-factors for drug use are intuitive. Depression, eating disorders, and other behavioral disorders can make life more difficult and more painful, and may make drugs more appealing.

Beyond these instances, nearly three out of four teens-a much higher percentage than those who anonymously identify themselves as users-cite stress from school, including college admissions, as the primary inducement to drug use. High-stress kids are about twice as likely to use drugs as their lower-stress peers. Parents seem oblivious: for every ten teens that make the stress and drug correlation, only one parent will see it.

School may be the most structured of the stresses teens face, with the clearest behavioral strategies about how to cope with overload. Teens are also building new social lives. Old friendships may change as new ones develop. Teasing and bullying may become more intense, and more widespread through social media. Dating and the pressure to have sex loom large. All that has to be negotiated by a still-forming brain that hasn't quite figured out how to control its rapidly-transforming body. Even adults in settled relationships, with clear rules about what they will or won't do sexually or socially, might shudder and reach for a drink if they had to face re-entering the dating scene. As might be expected, girls report higher stress levels than boys. Sexual expectations, rewards, punishments and pressures are still largely subject to the familiar double standard.

Negative "Pressure" and Unwitting "Enabling" from Parents

Parents tend to expect their kids to try drugs about four times more often than the kids themselves do. Parents who most expect their kids to use drugs are most likely to have their expectation fulfilled.

Teens report drugs being sold, kept, or used at about half of all schools-down to as low as a quarter of religious and secular private schools. Yet a majority of parents whose children attend schools with an identified drug presence would not, even hypothetically, move their children to a school that is "drug-free" (by the same survey criteria), citing reasons ranging from denial that such schools exist or that drugs are a problem to honoring their children's autonomy or the children's preference for their present school.

New data correlates teen drug use with their amount of spending money-and not at all on the high-dollar end. Teens with under $25 a week to spend tend not to include drugs among their purchases. At or above that level, likely use of alcohol, tobacco, and more-restricted drugs nearly doubles, and the likelihood of getting drunk more than doubles. This relative affluence combines with stress and with boredom to triple the likelihood of drug use.

Partners In Responsibility

Parents may have their own issues:

  • Personal use of alcohol, tobacco, controlled substances, or prescription mood drugs
  • Disagreement with prevailing drug policies and attitudes
  • Family patterns of substance abuse
  • Their own life stresses, perhaps along with flawed patterns of reaction to stress
  • The temptation to consign their children to movie, TV, computer and game screens
  • The impulse to support their children in "keeping up with the Joneses' children"

None of these factors inherently disqualify parents from engaging with their children in responsible reactions to social pressure and mass media that condone or promote smoking, getting high, and getting drunk. Parents have always wanted the best for their children, and better than they worked out for themselves. Kids, despite their often strident protestations, still typically look to their parents as their best information source, and thrive in countless ways when parents are engaged, honest, frank, protective, directive and generally present in their lives.

Parents can teach responsibility even as they are learning it. Teens may be acutely aware of their parents' failings, real or imagined, and still respect them and crave their loving guidance. Nobody has to end up a statistic.

Posted on January 24th, 2013

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