It’s that time of the year: parents of older teens are breathing a sigh of relief as their kids graduate from high school and take a great step towards adulthood. They’ve made it this far, and parents have every right to be proud. But let’s not relax too quickly; the end of the school year provides frequent occasions for substance use, from proms to graduation parties. As the L.A. Times recently pointed out, students are even abusing prescription stimulants in order to get through their final exams. Plus, college life is lurking just around the corner, bringing even greater challenges than high school, with less parental supervision. Today’s college students face unprecedented pressure to drink; 62 percent report alcohol use and 41 percent report binge drinking.
Although teens can always find an excuse for drinking and drugging – often with devastating and tragic consequences – destructive behaviors are not an inevitable component of late adolescence. That’s where parents come in. Even older teens still need guidance from their moms and dads; parents point their kids in the right direction, and that relationship persists long after those kids turn 18 and are labeled “adults.” You don’t stop being a parent just because your child is no longer a minor, and those transition years of young adulthood are crucial. Your child may be leaving the nest, but you, as a parent, continue to have key responsibilities for certain aspects of his or her life.
Health is one of these vital areas, and substance abuse is a major health issue. If your college student is engaging in risky behavior, it’s not only your right, but also your responsibility to intervene. If your 19-year-old were exhibiting symptoms of diabetes, you wouldn’t simply shrug and say, “Well, she’s an adult. She can take care of herself.” Substance abuse, like diabetes, requires vigilance. For one thing, young people under 21 are not “adults” when it comes to alcohol—underage drinking is illegal (yes, even for 20-year-olds) and parents shouldn’t turn a blind eye. The same goes for experimental or casual drug use, which can lead to a more serious drug problem. Another factor is simple brain science; the prefrontal cortex, where the mind’s self-censor is lodged, is generally not fully developed until age 25. This renders young adults prone to making bad decisions—a tendency that alcohol consumption augments.
Of course, this doesn’t mean parents should run around screaming, “Don’t do that! Don’t do this!” That attitude isn’t giving your teens the respect they deserve—or to which they will likely respond positively. Part of watching your child become an adult is finding new ways of interacting. This means showing parental authority without issuing a mandate; it means educating yourself about the consequences of substance abuse, so that you can help educate your teen. During these talks, parents who are in recovery can briefly share their own experiences and make sure their children know that they themselves are at an increased risk for developing their own addiction problems. You probably tell them about their genetic predisposition for heart disease, and you should do the same with substance use disorders. By increasing their understanding of the disease, you are taking important steps to protect your child’s health.
When your kids are in their late teens, that’s when you fine-tune your ability to give them advice and make suggestions. If you play your cards right, you can really influence their behavior for the better—even more so as they continue their journey into adulthood.
Director, National Family Services