Falling Drug Use: Keep Your Teen Clean

Fewer teenagers are abusing drugs, but those who do may run into real trouble.

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Teenagers aren't all addled cottonheads who nod off while watching the stoner antics of Pineapple Express. In fact, increasing numbers of teenagers are choosing to steer clear of illegal drugs, with just 9.5 percent indulging in 2007, down from 11.6 percent in 2002, according to new federal stats. Score one for clearheaded decisions! (By contrast, 18-to-25-year-olds increased their abuse of OxyContin and other prescription drugs.)

But how does one become one of those clear-thinking teenagers? That, it turns out, is a tough question to answer. To try to figure it out, I recently spoke with Michael Windle, Rollins professor and chair of behavioral sciences and health education at Emory University. He's spent the past 22 years finding out what happens to teenagers who drink and use drugs later, when they grow up. Some get seriously messed up for life, while others can binge drink and wind up as model citizens at age 30. Windle and other researchers have determined that about 20 to 25 percent of teenagers are at serious risk of having drug and alcohol problems. That's due to a combination of factors, including genetic susceptibility, social influences, and psychological issues. The other 75 percent of kids are probably going to be fine.

The problem is, there's no readily available test to tell if a child is among that high-risk 25 percent. Guess wrong and you could end up like Nic Sheff, who suffered the agonies of addiction to meth, alcohol, and other drugs in his teens. (I recently interviewed Nic and his dad, David, about Nic's struggle to get clean.)

Even if there were a standardized "drug risk" test for 10-year-olds, how would you help a child who tested positive? Current drug and alcohol awareness programs are one-size-fits-all, Windle says, which suggests they're largely wasted on the kids who are at low risk and not intensive enough for those who face big trouble. Schools and communities aren't organized to provide that kind of targeted preventive service, and insurance companies are in no hurry to add coverage, even though it might be more cost-effective, and certainly more humane, to pay for prevention than wait for people to get messed up. "I'm not saying your child has an alcohol disorder," Windle notes. "I'm saying they're at risk for it. A lot of insurance companies will not pay for that." He's planning to put together a study that will track students starting in middle school to see if the brains of those who use drugs and alcohol develop differently from the brains of those who abstain. But that kind of longitudinal study takes years to deliver results.

Until there are better programs to help teenagers who are susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse, parents can try these evidence-based tactics:

  • Start talking about risks posed by drugs and alcohol early. Teenagers try drugs and alcohol earlier than many parents realize, with half of all 14-year-olds saying they've had a whole drink. The earlier a child starts using drugs or alcohol, the greater the risk of problems. Delay is good.
    • Monitor your child's activities and friends. Peers have a huge influence on teenage behavior, and unsupervised teenagers are far more likely to get in trouble.
      • Keep them busy. Activities like martial arts that offer a healthy peer group, rewards, and good adult role models are protective against use and abuse.