Can Parents Help to Prevent? How to Hold a Productive Conversation about Alcohol and Drug Use

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Over a quarter of teens claim that they have found ways to buy vape products online without verifying their age

A Parent's Role in Prevention: It Starts with Getting Informed

How does a teenager decide to use alcohol or other drugs? Some parents might laugh at the idea of having a family talk about the decision, believing that a parent's wisdom falls only on deaf ears. But that's not true.

Parents and caretakers can be powerful prevention agents, and they play an extremely important role in a teenager's choice to use marijuana, drink alcohol or experiment with other drug use. But first, parents have to get informed so they can objectively discuss the subject whenever it arises. Then they can help their teenagers to understand the risks, and empower them to make the healthy choice.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the national trends: What does teen alcohol and marijuana use look like during COVID-19? How does vaping affect a teenager's health? Are teenagers facing addiction at higher rates right now?

We'll cover all of that and more, and share eight concrete tips for parents who want to help their teenagers make healthier decisions about their substance use.

Has Teen Vape Use Hit Its Peak?

Research has shown a promising decline in teen e-cigarette use. Let's looks at two factors that are likely contributing to this downward trend:

  • Teens' perception of risk has changed, and may be at the root of the decline. Respiratory health is top-of-mind during the pandemic, and teens in one study reported a “fear of weakening lungs” as a key reason why they're deciding to vape less.
  • Most e-cigarette companies are now hosted on adult-only websites, and teen-enticing flavors have been banned for refillable, pod-based products like Juul.

But there are also a few complicating factors that may affect the downward trend in vaping:

  • Teens are now less concerned about their parents finding out about their vaping. Many vape products and e-cigarettes have become near-invisible, and the tiny gadgets are easily hidden in plain sight.
  • Teens who were already addicted to nicotine before the ban on teen-enticing flavors have transitioned to using single-use disposable vapes like Puff Bars, which are still sold in an array of flavors.
  • Over a quarter of teens claim that they have found ways to buy vape products online without verifying their age.

Which Forms of Marijuana Do Teens Prefer? How Often Are They Using It?

Teen marijuana use has actually remained stable during the pandemic, and despite the drug's recent legalization and commercialization, it isn't being used more frequently compared to past years.

But the methods that teens use to get high are changing rather considerably. Rather than smoking the plant, teens are preferring to vape the drug or consume edibles. And this is especially true for teens who identify as male, and for teenagers who come from families with at least one college-educated parent.

Alcohol Use: Equal Parts Promising and Troubling

Data has clearly shown a decrease of binge drinking among teens during social distancing. And the majority of teens are drinking less now than they were prior to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, other troubling data has emerged about smaller segments of the teenage population. Those who are vulnerable, confront mental health issues or were already binge drinking are now at higher risk. Teens who have depression, experience major pandemic-related fears, or who value peer popularity are drinking alcohol at higher rates. And the number of students who drink alcohol at home with parents has also increased, and teens who continued to drink at higher risk levels during the pandemic lockdown are binge drinking at higher rates.

Eight Tips to Prevent a Teenager's Alcohol and Other Drug Use

Want to talk about the realities of alcohol and other drug use while still celebrating a teen's current health and wellness? Here are eight great starting points:

1. Keep them feeling positive, and highlight their healthy achievements

Despite the pandemic and all its adversity, teens are still finding healthy ways to engage with life and friends. Celebrate, endorse and encourage those healthy outlets. You can remind teenagers about the risks associated with using alcohol and other drugs. But you can also take time to point out a teen's healthy behaviors and how naturally rewarding they are.

2. Talk about the pandemic

 It's good to have regular conversations about the pandemic—research shows that teens experience less anxiety about COVID-19 when they're given the facts. Plus, you can informally segue into larger conversations about health and wellness. Much the same way people must protect themselves against COVID-19, a teenager can protect themselves against addiction.

3. Sponsor their wellness

Be an advocate for the healthy activities that teenagers are invested in. If they have found something that provides a substance-free high, trust that it enriches their life—so long as they're not overdoing it. Support those activities, and help teenagers build as many such strengths wherever and whenever possible.

4. Understand the importance of peers

Teens often look to their peers before making their own decisions, and research shows that teenagers are likely to overestimate how often their peers are drinking and using drugs. Help them to understand this, and teach them about the roles of impulse control, brain development and critical thinking when it comes to teenage decision making.

5. Know your kid's specific risks

Be aware of how sex and gender identity, socioeconomic status and mental health might impact a teenager's choice to use substances. If your teen is in a vulnerable situation or has mental health concerns, try to build plenty of protective factors such as access to health resources, healthier alternatives to substances and additional parental involvement.

6. Know and explain the increased risk

Remember that the teen brain is particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of substances regardless of where or what drug a teen may be using. Any substance abuse, including alcohol, comes with an elevated risk of addiction. Teens cannot be "taught to drink safely" because their bodies and brains are within a stage of development that makes substance use especially risky.

7. Maintain healthy household rules

Research continues to indicate that students who drink at home with parental knowledge are also likely to drink outside of the home and in ways that can lead to later addiction and other risky behavior.

8. Act with health in mind

If you suspect or know your child is using substances, have a calm, health-based conversation about the risks of use. Support your child by seeking professional help. Alcohol and other drug misuse is a health issue; finding an accredited local addiction treatment center is also an option.

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