Few things worry parents, grandparents, and other caregivers more than the prospect of children using alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs. They know youth under their charge spend many hours each day out of their sight and are subject to influences they can’t control. Youth may be encouraged by their peers to try marijuana, try inhalants, or misuse prescription drugs. Media often link alcohol use with fun and excitement and with being popular and sophisticated. Dangers seem to lurk everywhere.
In 2016, 1.9 million youth ages 12-17 reported using illicit drugs and 2.3 million said they used alcohol in the past month, with more than half of those youth reporting binge drinking. Each day, about 3,300 youth try marijuana for the first time and about 6,300 try alcohol for the first time.
The long-term effects of early alcohol and illicit drug use are even more alarming. Multiple studies have found associations between early initiation of alcohol or illicit drug use (for example, in adolescence) and an increased likelihood of developing substance use disorders.
Recent years have brought heartening news with fewer youth using harmful substances. However, with many teens still using alcohol and illicit substances, our job in keeping youth alcohol-and drug-free, safe, and healthy is far from done.
One way you can help your child “just say no” is to teach your child to choose friends wisely. The power of peer pressure can be seen any time one person stands alone against a group because we all want to fit in and belong.
As an adult, you can probably remember times when everyone in a group seemed to be in agreement on a certain topic—except you. Was it hard to speak up, knowing you’d have the whole group against you? Maybe everyone wants to go to the all-you-can-eat buffet, but you know you will overeat if you do. You might feel torn between your desire to lose weight and your desire to be part of the group.
Children have this same need to belong, but usually don’t have the strength to stand alone against the group. Therefore it’s important that your child not become part of a group that will collectively decide to use drugs, tobacco, or alcohol, for he will then be in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between his friends and his better instincts.
Help your child make friends with kids who are involved in fun, healthy, wholesome activities, not kids with lots of time on their hands and no positive activities, hobbies or sports to focus on. The friendships formed in a swim team, newspaper club, theater group, choir, or pottery class are based on mutual aspirations and interests, and the children in those groups are usually too busy pursuing their goals to bother with substance use.
Some specific action steps include:
- Encourage your child to get involved with groups doing the things that interest her. Whether it’s dog training, amateur astronomy, soccer, dance, yearbook, or music lessons, help your child pursue her interests with peers who are doing the same.
- Help your child practice resisting peer pressure. Help her feel comfortable saying “No thanks” or even “Bye, I’m out of here.”
- Help your child feel comfortable in social situations by teaching her how to ask questions and be a good listener. Let her also know that it’s okay to feel awkward at times; we all do.
Loneliness, boredom and isolation are risk factors for mental and substance use disorders. Help your child develop healthy, wholesome relationships with other happy kids and you will make it less likely that she will turn to drugs or alcohol for comfort.
For more information, visit www.samhsa.gov.