Taking Responsibility for Our Teens

Monday, August 26th, 2013


I was interested to read about a recent report from the Partnership at DrugFree.org showing that Hispanic teens were more likely to abuse drugs than their peers of other ethnicities.

At the Phoenix House Academy of Westchester, where we serve teens from the five boroughs of New York City as well as from throughout the Mid-Hudson Valley and Connecticut, Hispanic adolescents are not over-represented. However, I wasn’t surprised by some of the findings. The study, which surveyed almost 4,000 teens and 800 parents, found that Hispanic teens were more likely to be offered drugs by their peers—and they were less likely to get the right messages from their parents. 21 percent of Hispanic parents felt that it was OK if their teen smoked marijuana sometimes and 28 percent said that using prescription drugs was safer than using street drugs. Since Hispanic teens see so many of their peers using and they’re not getting clear messages at home, they may perceive drug use as normal behavior.

These findings point to the challenges Hispanics and other minorities often face in this country. For example, many Hispanic teens in Spanish Harlem grow up in single-parent homes like I did as a child. Often, fathers aren’t around and mothers must work extra hard to provide for their families. For this reason, kids have a lot of unsupervised time and they’re essentially raising themselves. They go to the streets to find camaraderie—and that’s where they get introduced to drugs and gangs. Parents need to know that experimentation, even with marijuana, can lead to full-fledged addiction—so they know how to spot a problem and intervene before it escalates.

Recently, we’ve made a big push at the Academy to address this issue. We host family education seminars to help parents better understand the nature of addiction, and we work to repair broken relationships between parents and teens. We’ve also created a database for parents where they can find housing and food assistance and other community resources. Many families are too proud to ask for help with these necessities so we make the information available to them. We recognize that the home environment is critical to a child’s recovery.

But our goal should be to help these families before their teen needs a residential treatment program like ours. That’s the purpose of a program Phoenix House is now developing; the program will bring clinicians into schools to engage with teens and their families before a child’s problems are out of control. When a kid is truant, I’ve found that nine times out of ten, substance abuse is involved—whether it’s the child using drugs or a parent. As soon as a teen starts missing class, that’s the time to meet with the family to see what’s wrong. If we can provide the right kind of guidance at this stage of the game—whether it’s counseling for the child or an education course for the parent—we can begin to reduce the incidence of adolescent addiction.

Above all, we need a holistic approach to preventing and treating teen substance abuse, particularly in minority communities. A great example of this is the Harlem Children’s Zone Project, a comprehensive system of youth programming over a radius of more than 100 blocks in Central Harlem. The goal is to create healthy communities by providing everything from free workshops for parents of toddlers to college prep. The Project engages families so that they understand what it takes to keep kids away from drugs and on track to succeed. If we could replicate this kind of programming in communities across the country, I believe we would have a shot at changing the statistics.

The message we must convey is that caring adults have the power to transform teens’ lives. Many Hispanic parents may think there’s nothing they can do to stop their kids from trying drugs, but this is far from the truth. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, teachers, and other caregivers can and should work together to create healthy, enriching environments. Everyone has to take responsibility for these kids.

Jose Rosario
Vice President and Director
Phoenix House Academy of Westchester

If you or a loved one needs help for a substance abuse issue, Phoenix House is here for you. Email us or call today at 1 888 671 9392.

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1 Comment

  • nancy hoving

    Good article, Jose. Hope Phoenix House can work more closely with the Harlem Childrens’ Zone or replicate it ourself. Best, NBH