Early this morning, my Facebook cruising took me down a curious parallel route. On one hand, I saw where moms had posted pictures of their shiny smiling kids, standing beside shiny new wheels, on their shiny first day of high school or college. On the other hand, I saw that a Facebook article inquiring “What Kind of Drunk Are You?” had gone viral. What’s the connection? I hope for most readers, the answer is “none.” That the accurate answer is “none.” Because the truth is, it is a boatload easier to put our kids in new outfits and new vehicles, than it is to put our kids in the Reality Zone that alcohol is NOT their friend.
(Was it not just yesterday that our kids were in kindergarten, playing with toys?)
As the author of the article noted, she was floored when her parents told her that when she drank, her personality changed. Alcohol has a way of filtering our view of ourselves and those around us. It has a way of making us strangers to ourselves. After drinks, we’re wittier, braver, bolder, more suave, less cautious. It takes the edge off. We feel a buzz, and chase it with more drinks. If all of this is news to you, you’ve perhaps never drank alcohol, or if you have, you’ve never keenly observed what it does to you, that causes you to make a habit of drinking. How you handle alcohol as an adult, is one issue. Today, my issue is how YOUR teen or college student is handling their liquor.
Here are the hard facts. Kids discover alcohol early. Don’t be surprised to hear that 12-14 year olds have found the liquor cabinet or another person willing to supply alcohol. The younger kids drink, the more likely they’ll become problem drinkers. If you turn your head to your teen’s drinking, or pretend not to smell alcohol on their breath or ignore the beer cans or cooler bottles stashed away…you are heading down a path of misery. The tough part is this: you may not be able to avert your son or daughter from that path. But, by golly, you can throw yourself across that path, before you end up paying for rehab or the ER or worse.
What can you do, to lessen the odds that your teen or college student’s drinking becomes a detrimental lifestyle? First, pay attention. Pay attention to what YOUR drinking tells them or shows them. If you’re using it to “take the edge off,” why shouldn’t they? Their lives are high stress and high drama. If that’s your go-to relief, what message are you sending your son or daughter? Second, pay attention to cues that they are drinking and don’t be the bozo parent who thinks it’s all good in the hood because your teen knows how to handle or hide it.
(What I’d give to go back to the days when kids’ problems seemed small & temporary.)
Recovering alcoholics can tell you plenty of stories about their “not yet” days of “carefree” drinking, when they hadn’t gotten a DUI–not yet. Lost a job–not yet. Ruined family relations–not yet. No one wants to think so, but your son or daughter could be one of the kids who is headed toward the tragedy of DUI or the vulnerability of getting date raped because she’s under the influence and unable to resist. Kids are much more likely to try hard drugs once they are buzzed. Parents have buried good teens who on impulse said “Just this once…” Right this minute, these horrors may be “not yet” incidences in your family. Come this Saturday night, they might be played out, with devastating consequences.
No, you can’t chaperone your son or daughter 24/7. You can’t make their choices for them. So what are you to do? Pay attention, like I said, to what your drinking habits are teaching them. Back off, if your alcohol consumption is ANY detriment to anyone’s well-being. Find the courage to acknowledge that to your son or daughter, and sincerely apologize for any pain or anxiety your drinking has caused them.
Secondly, pay attention to cues and clues that your son or daughter is dabbling or diving into recreational drug use or drinking. I’m repeating myself on purpose. PLEASE pay attention. Drinking, as a coping mechanism or as a cool factor, is easier to stop NOW, when a teen has multiple options for sports, theatre, school clubs, community organizations, and freedom to enjoy the outdoors–than it is once they have isolated themselves in a drinking crowd, or when they have spent four years getting wasted, or chosen a greek house that parties nonstop. It is also easier to stop NOW, when there is a “health track” or other school intervention available.
While you’re forcing yourself to think about this scary subject, please reconsider the term “recreational” drug use or drinking, because I have NEVER in 28 years of counseling, run across a person who drank out of happiness. Granted, I’ve seen happy people drink in moderation. But, I’ve known 6 gillion more people drink to “take the edge off,” or to “let my hair down,” or “escape for a while.” BTW, “gillion” is a clinical term.
I’m not judging anyone–I’m just saying that “recreational” sounds a lot better than “privately miserable” drinking or “Since you are here, I’m not technically drinking alone.” What I have seen, during almost 3 decades of counseling is this: Everybody has problems. Everybody has issues. Everybody has days they want to escape. Everybody hurts. Unfortunately, we live in a society that says “We don’t want to hear about that.” So, people try to drink away the pain or hopelessness or sense of futility or loneliness or bitterness…under the guise of just kicking back with a cold one or a fourth glass of wine.
In your son or daughter’s world, they’ll readily be offered shots, jello shots, purple drank, and whatever can be sloshed together. Alcohol is even being imbibed by eyeballing and tampons. I’m sorry for being graphic, but if others won’t speak up, I will. That’s if your son or daughter is open to drinking. They’ll also be offered weed, weed brownies, bath salts, suppliments, spice, flakka, synthetics, and caffeine powder.
(Our young adults are growing up in a time flooded with opportunities to buzz, burn brain cells, embark on alcoholism, and experience jail! They are damned if they do, damned if they don’t, damned if they will, damned if they won’t. We have to offer them support!)
Before you think, “That wouldn’t happen in my kid’s school or college,” think again. Once your son or daughter has gotten altered by alcohol, all promises and convictions are out the door. Whether that has to do with what drugs they’d never touch, what sex acts they’d never engage in, or what activities they’d never take part in. Yes, I’m talking about your wonderful, precious son or daughter. When he or she is under the influence, your son or daughter may be preyed upon by people who want to exploit them. It could be at a party, on a date, or on the internet when you think they are safe in their room. Don’t forget to add to your Reality Zone about high school and college life–there will be pervs and jerks all too eager to catch on film and video the antics, sober or not, of your son or daughter. Easily texted or uploaded and shared, these permanent reminders of bad choices, can haunt and destroy kids. They can also serve as blackmail. Also, with the easy money kids can make online for sketchy behavior, a kid can turn to alcohol to fortify them to make bad choices for good money. Beware, and make your kids aware that you care and that you are savvy enough to know why that could be a temptation to them or to their friends.
So…word to the wise. We can present our beloved sons and daughters to the wonders and possibilities of school and college, with a full heart and new supplies. Let’s also have an open mind to what all may lay ahead, as temptation and risk. Talk to your son or daughter about the things that stress them or that cause anxiety or depression. If they need additional support, seek out a counselor or support group. Don’t wait! Don’t see it as a sign of weakness, but rather, as a blessed opportunity to avert disaster or heartache.
Face and resolve the breakdowns in your family life, so that your teen doesn’t feel the need to seek out a new framily among peers or strangers. Take time every day to tell your son or daughter about the multitude of things they do right and that you appreciate and celebrate about them. It is easy to constantly critique and lecture, but that can create a terrible wedge between you and your child. That wedge, can create a painful void inside your teen’s heart.
Guess what’s waiting to fill that wedge and even widen it? You guessed right: opportunists. Which can come in the form of friends, teachers, neighbors–even celebrities, campaigners, and internet gurus. (No offense to gurus. Just opportunists.)
Don’t buy into the thinking that high school and college kids give their parents little thought. They DO still NEED you and want your comfort and guidance. So long as it is not spiteful, slurred, self-absorbed, or sanctimonious. Or, embedded in diatribes about your skunk partner or rants exposing your cynical view of life. Those tend to incline your teen to be “I’m busy, Mom” or to perpetually announce “Yeah, I would Dad–but I’m headed out the door.”
Most drinking and drugging among youth, is an effort to “self-medicate” the misery, hurt, fury, or numbness that teens and college kids may feel. Does that seem believable to you? If it does, you possess empathy (and maybe the twinge of your own memories of growing up.) That empathy can pay off, so long as it does not become enabling.
Or, maybe, that does not seem believable to you. I mean–what problems can a 14-17 year old kid have? They have a roof over their head, food, that pricey phone that’s permanently attached to their hand, and no worries about paying the bills, pleasing the boss, or placating an aging parent. Oh, to be that young again, right?
Kids today probably have it pretty good, in certain comparisons to your youth. But, in other ways–not so much.
The pressure to matter and measure up, academically, socially, sexually, and physically is intense. Even if they manage to shine, they know there’s somebody out there who is shining brighter. God help them, if it is the kid in their class, whose name you know–and who you indelicately mention and muse out loud about. And, God help them, if it is the looker in their BF’s or GF’s class or lab. When I was in school, there was one girl in my class with a 4.o. She had a nervous breakdown her freshman year in college, only because it was probably forbidden for her to have one during Senior year before college acceptances came out.
Let me sketch out Schooltopia for you, in case you haven’t had the 4-1-1. In your kid’s graduating class, there will probably be a row of 4.0 kids in tears, because they were trounced by 17 kids with higher GPA’s. If your kid takes AP classes, be assured there are others who take two or three times as many APs. If your kid is a leader, there are other kids in leadership positions on the state or national level. Heck, probably on the international level. You can take a vomit break, if you need to, I’ll pause.
And what about the Social and Sexual jungle they face? Believe me, there’s pressure there. Plenty enough to make them want to toke, drink, pop or party away their stress. Cliques are more brutal than ever, both at excluding “inferiors” and at manipulating those inside the circle. Mean Girls more savvy than ever, making the life of their minions and targets quite miserable. Not just at school–but around the clock, thanks to texting, snap chatting, YikYak, and you name it. I say, “you name it” because there is new technology popping up all the time, to allow anonymous (or not) forums for dishing and dissing any boy or girl who is targeted for amusement or wrath. What they spread doesn’t have to be accurate, it just has to make for good dirt or scandal.
Where this is especially cruel, is in the department of “gender expression.” Translation: girls better put out or they are uncool or lesbian. If they put out, they are sluts. If a guy hooks up with girls, he is cool. If he does not, he’ll be bullied as gay. If he’s gay, he’s cool to the girls and iffy for the guys who fear he will eventually hit on them. To the guys who are homophobic, he is a target for cruelty, either verbal or physical. And all the Anti-Bully posters on the hallway walls won’t help. Because, more than often, it is the super cool kids that the Administration love, that are the most snarky and diabolical. As you can see, it doesn’t matter what your teen is, or wants, does or doesn’t do, he or she is at the mercy of the 27/7/365 news feed, twitter, chats, etc., etc. Now, can you see why getting buzzed or high or “$#@& it,”drunk seems like an excellent escape from the emotional radon that’s choking them?
That’s what I mean by self-medicating: Taking medicine to stop the pain. Only the medicine can hurt you, kill you, get you date raped or arrested. It can get you kicked out of school. It can mean your college acceptance or scholarship gets rescended. Or, it can distract you from studies (despite good intentions to study Monday through Thursday) until one day you check your email and see a message from your school or college (or hopes of a professional degree) that essentially says “Buh bye.”
Yeah, it is that bad. And if you have a “good kid” it is worse? Why? Because, whether your son or daughter tells you this, they are wondering how in the world do the users and partiers (and cheaters) in the elite circles, get by with it? Where is the fairness in that? How do they manage to get pickled or high, and end up on Deans List? I hope you find some good answers to that question AND can offer it before it is too late, because that indignation has probably caused more than a gillion “good kids” to say screw it, and let loose.
Have I made a case for why your 12-22 year old is stressed out and freaking out and possibly dabbling in danger? I haven’t even mentioned the drama of life-after-sex. Which includes wondering why it wasn’t more satisfying or bonding or as fabulous as the porn they’ve studied. Add to that pregnancy scares, Plan B pills that you hope your folks never find out about, and that “one chance in 5 million that you’ll get herpes” (certainly nothing worse than that!) Yes, those are fears your sons and daughters face–if not because of a personal drama–because of a good friend who is asking them what to do!
Is your child equipt to advise others on contraceptives, abortion, or the remedy for syphalis? Nah, mine either. But, don’t think that will spare them from being put on the spot and possibly co-directing the path of a friend’s destiny. Does that make kids want to drink? Heck, it makes adults want to drink.
(Teens need us to love them. They are on a crazy, hard, journey. Give unconditional love.)
The good news is… you CAN reduce your 12-22 year old’s urgency to self-medicate. How? By tuning in to their world and to their lives. Not as voyure, but as a caring adult who can see consequences of actions, that he or she wouldn’t see. As a caring adult, who remembers the hunger to be loved, included, and accepted for who you are–who you really, really are.
You CAN help reduce their need to self-medicate. If you’ll be attentive to their struggles, you’ll help soothe their hunt for relief. If you can’t, find a relative or a counselor or youth minister or clergy who can help your son or daughter sort out solutions to their struggles. Just do not, I BEG YOU, do not close your eyes or look away. Do not trivialize bullying as “kids will be kids” or tell your teen, “You kind of ask for it, you know–the way you dress or wear your hair.” Please. Don’t be that parent.
Here’s another request. Please do not pretend your son or daughter is not sexual. I know that is a double negative. But it is a triple negative, if you fail to realize that your precious son or daughter IS a sexual being. They are wired to want physical affection. They are wired to want sexual expression. They are wired to be curious and to explore. They are wired to have hopes, dreams and fantasies–many of which are based on TV, movies, and MTV and the like. (I know, MTV is ancient.) Your teen has unspoken fears of being inadequate or undesired. They may or may not be sexually active. Whether or not they are sexually active, they ARE sexual creatures. Our sexuality, and what we make of it, shapes our lives. It impacts our self-esteem, self-acceptance and self worth. Unfortunately, our culture tends to say there are boxes that we must fit into, as men and women–and teens and college students. There are “rules” about being masculine and feminine. Fighting them can be exhausting. Not fighting them, can be suffocating. One of the tasks of growing toward adulthood, is owning oneself as a person of soul, self, sexuality, dreams, needs and uniqueness. Please make sexuality a safe topic in your home. It deserves much more dialogue than just the awkward discussion of “safer sex” and house rules.
Whether they are or not engaging in sex, your teen IS wondering where they fit in, on the spectrum of gender and sexuality. Did you notice I called it a spectrum? I did not perpetuate the idea of “boxes” that I mentioned earlier. Why? Because, human sexuality is still a strange frontier for psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health folks, and human development professionals. Did you know that? Because, it matters. Especially in a society that is assigning more and more power to one’s sexual preference. They are even offering scholarships based on it!
Who cares? I do. You may want to, also. So, I’ll offer some quick fun facts about human development. Cue that corny music and start the projector. Just kidding. Here goes. As the body torques up for maturity, hormones and hot spots make tweens and teens excitable, i.e., arroused and revved up. Between the ages of 10ish and 16ish, boys and girls can feel attracted to anybody and practically anything. So, don’t be surprised if you pick up the vibes that they have a crush on a teacher, same sex friend, older friend, or even cousin! At that age, the body’s hormone headquarters is shooting arrows at any target. Even though that has been evident to Developmental Psychologists for decades, it is not widely known or understood.
So, you can guess, that a tween or teen who feels a ZING around a camp counselor, friend, coach or friend’s sister, etc., is likely to think, “Wow! I must be gay!” Given a few years, time will tell if that’s the case. More likely, the chance is very strong, that it was a fleeting “developmentally appropriate” crush and not an indication of one being homosexual or bisexual. Not that I will here, or anywhere bash homosexuality or bisexuality or asexuality. Pedophilia, yeah. But that is an entirely different conversation.
Why do I mention the fact that it is common to have same sex attractions during our early teens? Because, we live in a culture that leaps to identify one’s sexual preference, either for popularity or punishment. Your teen or college kid may well have had a romantic or sexual experience that felt good. At that time, he or she may have been entirely sober or altered by alcohol or drugs. The conclusion they draw from that experience can have life altering consequences, depending on how they interpret events. It can drastically affect how they view, love and present themselves in the future. They may be 20 or older before they take an objective Human Sexuality course, where they learn what I’ve just explained–that the path to adult sexual identity can be a curvy one. Until they know that, your son or daughter may put themselves through hell. Enough hell, to want to stay stoned or drunk. Even enough hell, to hurt himself or herself.
Or, they may turn to a school club or national organization that is eager to pronounce their sexuality for them! This can range from ultra conservative groups to ultra liberal groups. Please, be in the loop! You really don’t want strangers parenting your child about something so profound as their self-concept, do you? How we embrace or reject our soul’s hunger for affection can have painful or positive consequences. Please be a parent that your teen (or tween, or college student) can turn to. If they can’t turn to you now, why would you be the one they seek, when they need support for new challenges in life?
(Friendships, sports, community service–additional ways Teens discover & invent themselves! Be the adult they can turn to, to think aloud and process their ups & downs.)
Did I paint an adequate picture of the academic, social, sexual and physical jungles your teen must navigate? Adequate enough, to sensitize you to why they may desperately want an escape from being good, or an excuse for throwing caution to the wind? Then I’ve done my job–of helping you see that your amazing son or daughter is…at risk. No matter how many talks you’ve had, how many declarations or promises they’ve made, or how dandy everything looks in his or her life. Believe me. They are stressed.
Given enough stress, too little rest, too much pressure and anxiety, and you can have a teen whose body chemistry becomes insufficient to boost and bolster positive moods. What can you do about that? In addition to ferreting out their secret life of using alcohol (a depressant) or drugs (include prescription drugs they get from other people or your medicine cabinet!) encourage them to eat decently and to exercise SOMEHOW.
Why? Because exercise offers natural mood boosting hormones. When that doesn’t help, please be open-minded about medication to help your teen or young adult. You wouldn’t question your child’s need for insulin, would you? Some kids find great benefit in medications that lower anxiety or that reverse depression or that combat OCD. And just in case your child has ADHD–please know that there is a LOT of anxiety that accompanies that different way of processing one’s stimuli, demands, and self-care. Parents who are reluctant to allow medication, may be doing their teen a disservice. Check it out.
Kids do risky things for many reasons. As a parent or adult, you CAN do something to lessen the risk of your son or daughter seeking alcohol for adventure or escape. Start by tuning in to what it is like to live in their world, in their shoes. Ask them to school you about what pressures they face and what fears they wrestle with. By doing this, you CAN help them find much better solutions than getting wasted! Again, people do not drink or drug because their life is great. They drink and drug to ease loneliness, numb sadness, suppress anger, relieve meaninglessness, feel included, strengthen courage, lose inhibitions, or escape oppressive expectations. Find better ways to accomplish any of these goals and you’ll remove the need (and risks) of drinking or drugging!
Are my suggestions easy? No. Do you want to know that your son or daughter has pretty major hidden pain? No. But, do you want to bury them one day, because you failed to work with whatever information you had? NO, of course not. Please pass along this information. Passing along this information may educate others. Even better, it may enable you to find some likeminded parents or adults who are ready to see whatever they need to see, and do whatever they need to do–while offering one another moral support. The ball’s in your court, now.
Laurie D. Johnson has a Bachelors degree in Communication, a Masters degree in Communication/Broadcasting, and a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology. Her TalkRadio show, “Skills for Living” can be heard Saturdays, 9-9:30 am, EST via TuneIn radio app, WLAQ AM 1410. Connect with her at FB “Dr J on WLAQ” or http://www.drlauriejohnson.com