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Is My Child Just Experimenting?

It can be challenging when a parent discovers that their child is experimenting with drugs or alcohol. Parents often don’t know where to turn or what to say to correct the situation.

Sometimes it feels easier to live in denial, which gives you a way out from having to deal with the problem. While disciplining your way out does not necessarily work, addressing the problem as early as possible gives teens and young adults the best chance of not having long-term substance use become a problem.

What Parents Need to Know

When teens enter high school, a parental concern is that the child may be tempted to engage in underage drinking. A recent article about underage drinking from The Partnership for Drug-Free kids states:

  • The average age for kids to have their first drink is 14.
  • People ages 12 to 20 drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the U.S.
  • Teens drink less than adults, but consume more than 90 percent of their alcohol by binge drinking.

Another one of the most often-used teen drugs is marijuana. It can be the first drug that a teen is offered and 41 percent of teens use before they turn 15. Teens often use marijuana and alcohol together, which can become a dangerous situation. Judgement is impaired and it can be hard to determine how intoxicated a teen will become.

Teens experiment with drugs and alcohol for a variety of reasons. The first question a parent should ask is why? Teens may not be comfortable explaining why they are experimenting, but work together to understand why they might be tempted by drugs or alcohol. It is important information so you can begin to address the issues that he or she is facing. Some of the most common reasons are that teens want to relax from the stress, fit in with the group, try something new, have fun with friends, or just experiment to see how drugs feel.

Teens experiment with drugs and alcohol for a variety of reasons. The first question a parent should ask is why?-Cathy Taughinbaugh

An Open Line of Communication

Every situation is different, so your teen may have his own unique perspective about why he’s choosing to experiment. The key is to keep the lines of communication open in the most positive way possible, so that your teen will feel comfortable talking with you about the challenges he is facing while maneuvering through his teenage years.

Give your teen plenty of opportunities to talk with you in a positive way about what is going on in his life. Being a listener and staying connected to your child will be one of the most powerful things you can do to help him make healthy choices and good decisions.

By intervening early, parents have a better chance that their child will not move further down the road to drug dependence.

Educate yourself by learning all you can about experimentation and drug use. You don’t want to be in denial and hope the experimentation will simply pass, or come to the realization that the your child’s use has progressed so far that he’s now dependent and suffering all the negative consequences.

Communicate honestly and stay connected with your teen. Learn about his friends and where he spends his free time. Being a strong parent requires asking questions, being involved, and staying proactive. Let your teen know that you love him and that you are available to help him work through the challenges that he is facing.

Motivational Interviewing

The 20 Minute Parent Guide by the Center for Motivation and Change suggests that motivational interviewing is a powerful approach to help parents and teens talk and listen to each other, making sure each side is heard.

Here are four parts to the motivational interviewing technique:

  1. Ask open ended questions: These are questions that cannot be answered with just one word, such as yes or no. They often begin with words such as what, how, or tell me more about. They suggest that, as a parent, you are interested in how your child sees things, rather than only having a parent driven one-sided conversation.
  1. Affirmations or listening for the positive: When our kids are experimenting, often parents are so worried that all they see is what their child is doing wrong. Instead, take a breath and notice the things that your child continues to do well and acknowledge them, so he has a continual reminder that he can get things right some of the time. Affirmations reduce defensiveness, build self-esteem, and reinforce positive behaviors.
  1. Reflections or active listening: Reflections are simply the restating of what you heard your child saying. You can restate their words or the feeling that you are getting from the conversation, so that it is clear you understand. Reflections are helpful so that parents do less telling their child what to do, and take more time to listen to their child’s viewpoint. It allows you to work together as a team and find a solution that works.
  1. Summarizing: Summarizing encapsulates the conversation so that you and your child are clear about what was discussed. It is a way to end the conversation and can be a bridge to the next logical step. Allow your child to correct you if he feels you are not summarizing his words correctly. Be accurate when summarizing. Rather than recounting what you wish your child said, accurately convey his thoughts and feelings – even if you don’t agree with them.


Reaching Their Potential

Parents are the best judges of their children, but at least one out of ten teens who experiment will go on to become dependent on drugs or alcohol. The danger they put themselves in does not get better with time; it usually gets worse.

Intervening early and keeping an open, positive relationship with your child can better the chances that your child’s experimentation does not progress, allowing him the opportunity to reach his dreams.


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