Do we still teach kids to “Just Say No?”

I was recently at a parent talk about drug, alcohol and nicotine use among teens. One parent asked the presenter what many were thinking, does the old 1980’s Nancy Reagan message still apply, do we just need to tell our teens to just say no? The moms who grew up in that era chuckled but I knew that many were thinking that is all they know- there must be something better today in 2018. The presenter gave an abbreviated response but I knew there was much more that the parents wanted to know so I was inspired to share what the research and my experience says with you all. I will do my best to do this in about a 5 minute read!

How do I talk to my teen about drugs?

Whether I am at a pparent-teentalk, or in my private practice the issue of drug prevention comes up fairly often. Whether a family lives in a rural, urban or suburban area families who are raising teens are faced with this issue generally starting in middle school. With such a vast topic I like to start with the most common route that drug use starts. Come join me on the path from nicotine use, to alcohol use, to marijuana experimentation and then how to talk to your kids in ways that they will listen. I won’t be covering other drugs like meth, heroine and opioids in this article.

Let’s begin with where this typically starts- nicotine. Smoking cigarettes is a highly complex topic where race, age of use, rate of use, and region make a significant difference. Some important considerations are the forms that teens consume it. This includes cigarettes, vapes, chew/dip, micro flavored cigars, hookahs, pouches, lozenges, strips, and sticks. Vaping has surpassed smoking cigarettes among teens since 2014 according the US Dept. of Health and Human Services. Since tobacco (which contains the nicotine) is commonly the first consumed drug, I think it’s important to talk to kids about the risks. It’s fairly simple since it is not a highly contested issue and the education around it is easily accessible and not very controversial. These conversations can start around age 5 and need to be ongoing. Some talking points include: health risks such as cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory illness, high likelihood of addiction, discoloration of teeth, the foul odor and the unknown negative effects of vape pens (such as Juuls) just to name a few. While speaking about these things stay open yet clear that you do not want them to engage in this and revisit the conversation at natural yet regular times (such as when you see someone else smoking).

Once a teen starts consuming tobacco in any of the various forms (again most likely vaping) they can suddenly find themselves in situations where they are cutting school, hanging out with new peers and engaging in higher risk behaviors. This can happen quite quickly so being on top of your teen’s transitions, especially from middle school to high school freshman is important. This transition makes me think of a high school girl I had been seeing since 6th grade. She was a straight A student, quiet, and spent most of her time playing with her younger siblings and beloved dogs. Once she started at a large high school she quickly got involved with vaping. When she confided in me about this I was surprised, even though I knew the risk, it still caught me off guard. She essentially said that “everyone” was doing it and that she felt pressure to smoke at lunch time. This led to selling pods on school grounds and a new crowd that she was not quite prepared to handle as they drank alcohol on weekends in parks and at parties. This all happened between August – October of her freshman year. I think her story represents how easily one high risk behavior can lead to another. Once we finally talked to her parents about this I suggested that they cover the following: acknowledge the common curiosity of alcohol use, discuss the legal age of 21 and reasons behind it (like brain development), stay focused on facts and be sure you are aware of curfews as staying out later is correlated with higher risks. The link between increased sexual activity and drunkenness is also a conversation that seems to be important to teens as well. If there is a family history of alcoholism share that with your child. It is a disease that has a hereditary component and that your child should be aware of and educated on.

Last, with the legalization of marijuana access has become even easier. With edibles and the multitude of ways that THC can be consumed it is very challenging for parents to keep up. Once a teen has starting vaping, then drinking alcohol (even if fairly occasionally such as twice a month) the likelihood of them being exposed to marijuana and experimenting with it also significantly increases. Since 2014, when recreational marijuana became legalized in Colorado, I have been involved in marijuana education and prevention campaigns and talks. While the topic of marijuana use could be an entire article I would say I have learned through my own experience working directly with teens that the following information seems to impact them: 1) marijuana use can decrease your IQ points, meaning that cognitive functioning within the brain is damaged and not reversible 2) stats show that regular use in adolescence results in less job satisfaction and higher probability of not completing school 3) driving high is like driving drunk- it’s not safe or ever okay 4) the marijuana that is consumed today is not at all like the marijuana parents may have smoked decades ago and can be laced with dangerous substances 5) a teen or adult has a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression, can experience psychosis with use and 6) marijuana is addictive and people can overdose on it.

I encourage parents to answer questions about your own use and experimentation as honestly as possible as your child will likely ask you about it one day. Telling the truth goes a long way in honest and ongoing communication. Discuss age of legalization and how the brain does not finish developing until about age 25 so those that are in the field would suggest waiting until at least 25 to exercise their curiosity in consuming marijuana.

As with most teen talks, you want to stay open, responsive, honest and understanding in having these conversations. These three drugs are complicated because they are all legal and are around us. It’s important to remember that beyond easy access, other reasons kids use drugs are:

  • media images and messages

  • a means for self medication of emotional and or physical pain

  • boredom is a common response of why a teen started using

  • rebellion- so make sure you are constantly working on the relationship with your child

  • to fit in with peers, make friends, or be cool or popular

  • lack of accurate information

  • parents drink or smoke

Last, parents really are their kids greatest teacher and influence. Start early and keep the conversation going. Use opportunities such as movies, shows, articles or headlines to discuss the drug epidemic that our country is experiencing. And spend time as a family, off technology, talking and relating with your kids. Teach your kids how to set boundaries, how to be a leader and how to choose good friends. And learning how to “just say no” is always a good idea (for many reasons) that takes practice. More on all that in upcoming notes…until then do more listening than talking. Happy Parenting!

About the author

Sheryl Gonzalez Ziegler, Psy.D. holds a Doctorate of Psychology, is an Author, Speaker, National Media Contributor, Non-Profit Board Member, Girl Scouts Leader, Girls on the Run Coach and Advocate for children. She has been treating children and families for over twenty years with areas of expertise in anxiety, trauma, divorce, stress management and depression. Dr. Ziegler is the author of the best selling book, Mommy Burnout: how to reclaim your life and raise healthier children in the process, the winner of Best Parenting Book of 2018 as awarded by International Latino Book Awards.

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