TEENAGE SUBSTANCE USE –The impairment of responsibility

Parents today must raise their child in a drug-filled world. From legal to illegal, mood and mind altering substances are everywhere to be found. On the one hand, psychoactive drugs are nothing new. Most every culture throughout human history has found or made some substances that served to alter people’s mental state. On the other hand, such substances exist in more variety today than ever before, with powerful legal and illegal interests ruthlessly pushing their use on people, young and old, because of the enormous profits to be made.

So what are you as parents supposed to do? Although you can’t actually control your child’s choices when it comes to alcohol and drug use, you can inform those choices with the best information and understandings you have. You can inform your child about the nature of the problem, about the risks involved, and about keeping oneself safe should the decision to use occur.

Starting in your child’s early adolescence (ages nine to thirteen) declare the topic of substances and substance use a topic always open for family discussion. “Because you are growing up in a drug-filled world, it is important for us to talk about alcohol and drugs as they indirectly or directly affect your experience – from what you hear, from what you see, and from what you may decide to do.”

As peer drinking becomes more common, encourage waiting to start until older. “You need to know that the longer you can delay any use, the lower your risk of problems with substances are likely to be should you later choose to use.” And debrief all episodes of substance use with your teenager in order to both assess the level of use for yourself and to derive all possible learning from the episode to best inform and protect your child. “After this experience, what do you know that you didn’t know before about the risks of substance use to watch out for.”

Finally, you can inform yourselves about signs to watch for that might indicate substance-related troubles in your child’s life. Usually these signs betray problem use because the teenager exhibits some loss of normal or characteristic responsibility.

Understand that teenagers choose to use substances for the same reason adults do. Alcohol and drugs are used for their mood and mind altering effect. Most users, adolescent and adult, resort to substances to experience freedom. They use substances to gain freedom from discomfort (to escape from stress, worries, inhibitions, pain, and the burdens of responsibility), and they use substances to gain freedom for pleasure (to enjoy feeling good, having fun, letting down, letting loose, and letting go the restraints of responsibility.)

Depending on frequency and amount of consumption, alcohol and drug use sacrifices some degree of sober responsibility for the freedom (the mood and mind altering effects) that substances have to offer. In the process, the user changes his or her mental and emotional state, moving from a caring to a less caring or more care-free frame of reference. In an extremely wasted or intoxicated care-free state, anything that feels good or right at the moment goes. Now judgment is adversely affected as impulse rules decisions, and the person (adolescent or adult) focuses on satisfying momentary wants, is unmindful of sober responsibility, and acts oblivious to outcome. For the teenage substance user, excessive alcohol and drug use can open the door to many serious problems: first sex, drunk driving, fights, extreme risk taking, suicidal despondency, school failure, accidental injury, law breaking, and being perpetrator or victim of social violence.

If you want, you can describe to your teenager the worst case scenario: how starting to use Substances can lead to not being able to stop using substances. You can say something like this. When you first hear about substance use from friends, you are curious about it. You try it and decide you like it. You come to enjoy it, the way it can stop you from feeling bad and start you feeling good. You begin using it more regularly. Accidentally or on purpose you may have an experience of doing it too much, getting sick or in trouble, but you like it too much to stop. With continued and greater use, you get to think and feel and act like a lot of what used to seem important doesn’t matter. Sometimes, under the influence, you make decisions that on sober reflection afterwards you regret. But you keep using anyhow because you want the pleasure, support, or escape that the substance provides. At best, when you do try to do without, your life seems empty and boring. Sense of excitement and freedom are missing. At worst, you experience significant emotional or physical discomfort. Soon you find yourself preoccupied with getting to your next opportunity to use. You are lying to yourself and others about how much you use. You deny to yourself and to others any problems caused by your use. You exploit others, particularly those who love you, to enable your use. You stay away from people who disapprove of your use. You seek the company of people who use like you do. You design your life to protect and perpetuate continued use. Finally, substance use becomes the primary focus and organizing purpose of your life. You can’t imagine living life without it, even though for many years you did. Now satisfying the need to use on a regular basis is your ruling motivation. You didn’t choose to become addicted, to depend upon this self-destructive substance for survival, but now you are. You have moments of remorse when you resolve to stop using and straighten up your life by restoring lost responsibility, but the decision not to use is not so simple as when you first began. Now you’ve got a habit going, and it feels overwhelmingly difficult to quit. In the beginning, use seemed too good to refuse; but in the addictive end, use feels too bad if you stop.”

©Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. For permission to use, contact the author.