Adolescence is the healthiest physical time of life. Adolescents in general are stronger, faster, more disease resistant and have better reaction times than the rest of us. Unfortunately, adolescents also have a mortality rate 200-300 percent greater than the rest of the population. Research by Ronald E. Dahl, M.D., indicates that this spike in adolescent mortality rates is primarily due to problems with control of behavior and emotions. He lists the primary causes of death and disability as alcohol and substance abuse, often accompanied by reckless driving, risky sexual behavior and general sensation-seeking, resulting in high-risk behaviors.
What Parents Need to Know and Do
By Thomas L. Cory, PH.D.
Researchers at Duke University have found that the frontal lobes (the part of the brain that is responsible for goal-oriented, rational thinking and self-control) and the temporal lobes (the part of the brain generally associated with emotional maturity) do not reach full development until a person’s early twenties. An adolescent’s brain, according to the National Institute for Mental Health, is actually developmentally different than the brain of an adult.
Another large contributor to the increased level of deaths associated with teens is the onset of puberty now at a much earlier age. Puberty is occurring at a noticeably younger age in Western cultures than it did 100 years ago. Adolescence and the risky behaviors associated with it, which at one time spanned a two to four-year interval, is now an eight to fifteen-year interval, beginning earlier and ending later.
Another key factor in the risks to teens is peer pressure, particularly involving drugs and alcohol. Almost every piece of research indicates that adolescents are extremely vulnerable to feelings of rejection. Adolescents want to belong so if peers are abusing substances, an adolescent is likely to do the same.
Adolescents: Drugs & Alcohol
Duke University studies show that teens who abuse potentially addictive substances – i.e., drugs and alcohol – are far more likely to show impaired brain function later in life because the adolescent brain is still under development.
Research also indicates that if there is a family history of alcoholism or drug abuse, an adolescent is at much greater risk to develop addictive behaviors.
It’s important to note that while marijuana and beer may be the substances most readily available and most often used by teens (with adolescent females also being particularly attracted to wine-cooler type drinks), hard liquor and “hard” drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines, which are potentially more addictive and damaging, are all too frequently substances of choice.
Parents: What Not to Do
Misguided, though well-intentioned, parents and adults have frequently tried to frighten adolescents by graphically pointing out the terrible consequences of substance abuse. This approach is likely doomed to fail. Remember, adolescents’ brains are different. Teens won’t heed warnings about alcohol and drugs because they typically don’t accept arguments that seem logical and decisive to adults. Adult logic is not adolescent logic.
Adolescents are also commonly convinced they are invulnerable. Our best research indicates that most people don’t accept the reality that they can or will die until approximately the age of 27. Trying to frighten an adolescent out of trying something because it’s bad for them or will have debilitating long-term consequences is largely an exercise in futility.
Needless to say, if you as a parent drink to excess or use drugs, you may have lost much credibility with your adolescent. Saying,“Do what I say not what I do” just isn’t going to work.
What Can a Parent Do?
Parenting is an art form. Each child is different and will respond to parental interventions differently. This being said, research indicates that there are several things parents can do to help their children successfully navigate their adolescent years.
Be firm in consequences. One, if not the primary, goal of adolescence is to develop a sense of independence – an ability to function in the world without parental guidance. Paradoxically, to do this an adolescent needs to know that his or her parents have values, rules and limits that they expect to him or her to respect. In other words, while a child lives at home and/or is supported by his or her parents, he or she needs to honor the rules. If a rule is broken, a reasonable consequence needs to follow.
Also, keep the lines of communication open. You can do this by being attentive, considering their requests seriously and showing an interest in their activities. Within limits, it really isn’t whether or not you let them go to the rock concert that is important. What is important is that you communicate to them that you seriously considered their request and made your decision based on what you believed was in their best interest. P.S. — Don’t expect them to hug you if you say no, but then, good parenting doesn’t always make you popular.
If you don’t like your adolescent’s choice of friends, explain to your adolescent your reasons for not wanting him or her to associate with that person. Perhaps you’re aware that the friend has a serious substance abuse problem. Since you cannot, nor should you, monitor your child’s behavior 24/7, all you can do is set reasonable rules and consequences regarding his or her relationships with peers. You can play a positive, proactive role in supporting your adolescent’s positive activities and associations.
Parenting really is such a balancing act. Positive reinforcement has to be balanced with allowing your adolescent to experience reasonable consequences for poor choices. Do not bail them out, but always let them know you’re there and love them.
A recent study by Deborah Burke Henderson of Students Against Destructive Decisions found that adolescents with a high level of “sense of self” – feeling smart, successful, responsible and confident – were very unlikely to abuse alcohol or drugs.
What can parents do to help their adolescents achieve these feelings?
• Support your adolescent’s positive, age-appropriate activities and interests. Go to their baseball games and gymnastic meets.
• Encourage separation from parents and age-appropriate independent decision making.
• Teach peer-to-peer social skills and facilitate positive peer relationships.
The bottom line is this: be an active, compassionate and firm parent. It’s your best chance to raise substance-free adolescents.
Tom Cory has lived in Chattanooga for 35 years. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and Miami University where he received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. Today he practices clinical psychology specializing in interpersonal and marital therapy.