Teen Drinking & Drug Use

A Rite of Passage to Nowhere

Megan was excited when her friends told her to meet them at Brittany's house after school. She was anticipating this opportunity throughout the day. She knew that this meant that she would finally find out what it feels like to get high on pot. Word around school was that Brittany had access to all kinds of drugs, but Megan was not in her circle of friends. Now an invitation from two mutual friends was a ticket to stepping up into something she had wanted for a long time. She was starting to worry that she was the last person in junior high to get stoned—but that was about to change.

Occasionally, Sean's dad thought that his son was "too soft." The boy was always more into computers and music than sports and other "guy" things. As Sean was nearing his 13th birthday, his dad wondered how he could help Sean to act more like a man. On the day of the birthday, Sean's mother had the typical celebration—a favorite meal, chocolate cake with 14 candles (one for good luck) and balloons. Sean's dad hated the candles and balloons. After the party, when Sean's mother and older sister went to the sister's volleyball game, Sean's dad brought out a six-pack of cold beer. He told Sean, "It's about time for you to learn how to drink."

All too often, teens and people around them glorify a teen's first experience with alcohol and other substances. This may occur in a gathering of friends who raid their parents' liquor cabinet to try alcohol for the first time. It may occur with classmates meeting after school to experience the effects of marijuana. It may even occur among teens who try prescribed painkillers after already having previous experiences with other substances.

These encounters are fueled by curiosity and occasionally by peer pressure. Frequently, they are celebrated within the peer group as a rite of passage, bridging the gap between adolescence and adulthood.

This celebration may even include family members, like when a father thinks it is a bonding experience to introduce his son to his first beer, or when an older sibling supplies a substance. All of these encounters appear—on the surface—to offer a legitimate step toward ongoing growth.

Rites of passage involve much more than being exposed to a new experience. In countless cultures around the world, rites of passages are rituals through which the greater community recognizes that the young person is ready to move up to new responsibilities as an adult. This can be seen in the Vision Quest that some Native American tribes offer as a challenge to their youth. It not only involves the youngster surviving overnight in the wilderness with limited resources, it includes the elders training this young person to be successful in meeting this challenge by developing new skills, such as hunting for food, starting a fire for warmth, and building a lean-to for shelter. Upon successful completion of this challenge, the tribe now sees the person as an adult with both the responsibilities and the privileges that accompany that status.

For many teens in mainstream American culture, getting a driver's license is a rite of passage. It symbolizes that this young person has learned the rules of the road and has developed driving skills—both of which are tested by the state in which the youth resides. Furthermore, there is an implied expectation by the state (the community) that the new driver is responsible enough to manage a vehicle safely. If the person does not do so, the state has the power to revoke driving privileges.

Other socially accepted rites of passage include graduating from high school or college and getting one's first job. All of these experiences involve preparation, skills-building, community recognition, and becoming able to manage new adult role functions.

Returning to the issue of teen drinking, drug experiences and rites of passage, there are major differences between a young person thinking that they are moving into doing things like an adult and actually becoming an adult.

When someone has her first drug experience, there is typically no preparation. The moment tends to be driven by curiosity and opportunity. For the most part, this new experience does not generate recognition by the larger community that the person is now an adult.

Often the result is the opposite: illicit substance use or underage drinking may lead to the teen getting a scheduled appointment in juvenile court, which clarifies how the state views this individual.

Instead of this new experience leading toward managing new adult role functions, having a juvenile record can create barriers to moving into this role. Even if there is no juvenile justice involvement, early drug use typically sets the stage for increases in frequency of use and experimentation with other substances. As the teen continues further down that path, there tends to be a disconnection from family, school, and other social influences meant to guide the youth toward adulthood.

For those who become more and more involved in substance use, they may need teen addiction treatment in order to intervene in this destructive pattern. Interestingly for some, the treatment experience serves as a more legitimate rite of passage. Teens in treatment are prepared for the challenges of ongoing recovery by being taught by counselors (elders) about substance use disorders, Twelve Step fellowships and other available recovery supports.

In their work with counselors and sponsors, they develop new skills in communicating their thoughts, in managing their emotions, in relating effectively with others, and in resolving their conflicts.

Helping teens reconnect with family and school bridges the gap that was created during the months or years of substance use. When treatment providers are effective in engaging the teen's family, school, and maybe even probation officer, the personal growth attained by that teen can be recognized and respected by the larger community. Lastly, all of this leads to the young person having a much better chance to move into adult role functions.


Bob Carty, LCSW, CADC, CCJP, is the director of clinical services at Hazelden in Chicago, a part of the the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. He has served in the addictions treatment profession for more than 35 years as a counselor, supervisor, trainer, author, mentor, board member and administrator.

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