Because teens from military families may have lived in different places or assumed adult responsibilities while a parent was deployed, they often appear to be more accomplished, adaptable and mature than other teens of the same age. But for some military teens, living with the challenges of long family separations and disruptive permanent change of station moves can increase their vulnerability to drug and alcohol abuse.
Even without the challenges of military life, teens can be at risk for substance abuse due to their natural tendency to feel indestructible, their common need for social acceptance and their susceptibility to acting before considering consequences. That's why parents everywhere often worry about their teens abusing drugs and alcohol.
Know the dangers of teen substance abuse
If you're going to successfully educate your teen about the dangers of drug and alcohol use, it's important to be able to explain the risks in a calm but knowledgeable way. Consequences of substance abuse that worry parents most include:
- Impaired driving — An inexperienced young driver is more likely than an adult to have seriously impaired judgment, motor skills and reaction time when under the influence of alcohol or any drug. The risk of an accident or injury is just as great when a teen is a passenger in the car of another teen whose driving is impaired by alcohol or drugs.
- Serious injury or fatality — When teens are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they're more likely to make errors in judgment that put them in dangerous or life-threatening situations, such as drowning, being robbed or assaulted, falling or accidentally overdosing.
- Problems in school — Substance abusers typically have more problems in school, ranging from lowered concentration and motivation to learn to poor conduct and attendance.
- Irresponsible sexual behavior — Teens under the influence are more likely to have unsafe or unprotected sex or get into situations where they are at risk for sexual assault.
- Serious health problems — Some substances abused by teens, such as synthetic drugs and prescription drugs, can cause damage to the brain and other organs, psychosis and seizures.
- Addiction — Because the brains of teens are not fully developed, they may be more susceptible to substance abuse and addiction than adult brains. Research shows that experimentation with drugs or alcohol at an early age is associated with dependence on substances later in life.
Talk to your teen about drugs and alcohol
Many parents make the mistake of waiting too long to talk to their teen about substance abuse. Teen surveys have revealed that it is not uncommon for children as young as 13 to have been offered drugs or alcohol. When you talk to your teen or preteen, make sure you're in a comfortable situation and not likely to be interrupted.
Encourage your teen to share his or her opinions about drugs and alcohol. Be interested and try to do more listening than talking. Ask open-ended questions that require more than a yes-or-no answer. And make a mental note of your teen's verbal and non-verbal responses to get a feel for his or her comfort level with the subject.
Talk about the risks honestly without using scare tactics. It's important to give accurate information about what drugs and alcohol can do to a young person's future without resorting to horror stories. You might use examples of how drugs and alcohol abuse can interfere with things your teen cares about, like sports, driving and physical attractiveness to peers. It helps to know the symptoms and risks for each of the substances most commonly used by young people. The National Institute of Health's MedlinePlus website has helpful information about specific drugs of abuse and underage drinking.
Be open and honest about your own experiences with drugs or alcohol. Your teen may ask about your experiences and look for cues about how open to be with you based on how you respond. If you have a family history of drug or alcohol abuse, be sure your teen knows there is a genetic component to addiction that could increase his or her risk.
Brainstorm ways to resist the pressure to partake. You might talk about all the ways that drugs and alcohol are glamorized and their consequences minimized in the media and perhaps by peers who may offer drugs or alcohol. Try to engage your teen in a discussion of ways to turn down offers and get out of situations where drugs or alcohol are being used.
Talking openly about substance abuse is the first step in an ongoing strategy to help your teen avoid it. You may also need to establish firm rules and consequences for drug and alcohol use, and enforce them consistently. Parents are more likely to succeed if they know who their teen's friends are and what kind of activities they're involved in. It's also important that parents set good examples with their own behavior.
There are many good substance abuse information resources for parents and teens available from government and nonprofit organizations. You can search online for resources to help you and your teen become well informed about the risks and to reinforce your preventive measures. Be sure to download the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism publication on talking to your child about alcohol and explore with your teen the National Institute on Drug Abuse's NIDA for Teens website.
Know the warning signs
If your teen is abusing drugs or alcohol, there will be warning signs. These are some red flags you might notice:
- Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
- New friends and different places to hang out
- Loss of interest in favorite activities
- Withdrawal from or hostility toward family members
- Unfamiliar smells in the home, car or on the teen's possessions
- Unexplained need for money and secrecy about where it goes
- Alcohol bottles, prescription drug bottles or drug paraphernalia in the teen's room
- Changes in physical appearance or personality
- Sudden changes in school performance
When your teen needs help
If you suspect that your teen has used drugs or alcohol, enforce the consequences you established and discuss ways to regain the trust between you. If you think your teen is significantly involved in abusing substances, professional help is probably needed. As a member of the military community, you can get the necessary inpatient or outpatient treatment that your teen may need through TRICARE. Your primary care manager can provide an appropriate referral. You can also speak with a Military OneSource consultant at 800-342-9647 if you need support in dealing with your child's substance abuse.