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Substance use prevention

Adolescents take risks, we know that, and it is even considered normative developmental behavior. We also know the adolescent brain develops well into their 20s and that drugs and alcohol can impact that long term development. Beyond that, there’s another piece to consider when it comes to adolescent substance use: adolescents experience emotions in a very strong way. The good, the bad, it’s all heightened. Fun with your friends is extra fun, sad days are extra sad. There is a risky connection between the potentially strong associations that can be formed between adolescents having fun, feeling carefree, less stressed, less anxious and drug and alcohol use. So, it becomes very important that we focus on preventing substance use and abuse.

In light of Red Ribbon Week (last week), Krystal Crawford, MHC, CASAC, is back, talking about substance use prevention. Before I turn it over to her, I can’t help but mention that although this newsletter is about prevention (and I just said how important prevention is), since we know that adolescents take risks, remember that it’s okay for your adolescent to make up an excuse, lie, or blame you to get out of difficult situation involving drugs and alcohol (or other risky behaviors), and you should be fully committed to driving the getaway car for them (safety trumps everything else). It's important that they understand this. We don’t need to compound a bad decision by having an adolescent be too scared of getting in trouble that they don't contact their parent when they need help. This actually connects directly back to prevention, because as you'll see below, one of the most important prevention tools is talking to your children. You do not want the first time you talk your child or teenager about drugs and alcohol to come after something difficult happens.

With that, I'll leave it to Krystal.

If you have school aged children, you might be aware that the end of October was Red Ribbon Week. Working in a school setting, I have done door decorating contests, themed dress up days, and many different activities to spread the message of substance use prevention and awareness, and it has me thinking about the word “prevention.” We start the school year off with messages of prevention, but what does preventing really mean? The answer is not a simple one since many risk factors and preventative factors play a role in someone’s likelihood of certain choices or behaviors, but here are some basic strategies for your toolbox of prevention:

Talk- I find this to be most important. Children of parents who talk to them regularly about drugs are 42% less likely to use them. Have age-appropriate conversations around the developing brain, brain health and how to be safe. When your children are younger this can be about medication (e.g., never taking any medication unless from a parent or specific trusted family member, checking the dose, etc.). As your children age, take advantage of any opportunity you see (watching tv and teenagers are smoking). This will keep a continued open dialogue where they feel comfortable talking about drugs. There are lots of resources online at or that can help with these conversations.

Encourage healthy risk taking, which can build confidence. Risk taking is a natural part of adolescence and helps them figure out who they are. It is like a child learning to ride a bike; they might fall and skin their knee, but the risk is worth the reward. Brainstorm ideas of things youth can participate in to build life skills that will be needed to challenge themselves, plan, and resist impulses. This can help build resiliency and we know that resiliency is key!

Work together with your teenager to create expectations and boundaries. Set and stick to limits. Allow them to be part of the conversation about what those limits are, and be sure to explain why the limit exists (it’s a good thing that your child wants to know why something is a rule, and they deserve an answer). Have them suggest consequences if they break the rule and make sure you stick to consequences that are decided. Monitor their physical and virtual behavior, know their friends, plans, their apps, and money, limit unsupervised time, and try to keep up with current trends. It’s a lot, I know. Working together can help make it seem like you’re in this together, not against each other. This can also be really important if they are in a difficult situation and they need your help (safety trumps everything else).

Understand the warning signs for substance use and related mental health challenges. Pay attention to changes in behavior, sudden lack of interest in activity or friends they used to enjoy, increased sneakiness or irritability, changes in appetite or sleep. Again, talk. Ask the difficult questions when you notice a change in behavior or signs of distress.

Overall, supporting your children, listening, and having open communication is the key. Talk often, check in with their mental health, and celebrate positive choices and success. There is no evidence that talking to kids about drugs will give them the idea to do those things, but there is evidence that talking to kids about drugs can help prevent later use. Don’t wait until there is a problem to talk about these difficult topics. Keep yourself and your kids informed and aware, so they know how to ask questions and find support when needed.

Thanks for reading!

Krystal & Dr. Kate

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