Teens and drugs–how much influence do parents have regarding teen drug use?

PIC drugs and backpack Teens and drugs how much influence do parents have regarding teen drug use?This week my kids (ages 12 & 13) and I went to a Reality Tour. It’s a 2 1/2 hour interactive presentation that provides an honest look at drugs and teen drug use giving parents and kids clear information on what experimenting with drugs can become through addiction. 

We watched a graphic video with scenes of young men and women whose experiences with substances landed them in the ER. Doctors and nurses offered detailed stories of real cases they have seen. We heard from a 23 year old who was serving time in jail because he killed two of his friends when he crashed his car while driving drunk. He talked about being put into the police car as he watched his friends being loaded into the back of an ambulance, bloody and unconscious.

After the video, we walked to different “scenes” throughout the building. While we were walking to the first scene, one of the girls was pulled out of the group by a police officer. She was searched. The police officer found a bag full of pills. She was handcuffed and taken away, arrested for possession.

Scene 1: We entered a room with a jail cell and listened to the narrated story of the girl we had just seen arrested. We heard her background that went from popping a few pills at a party with her boyfriend to stealing from her family and friends so that she could support her habit to getting arrested for dealing. They brought her into the room and locked her in the cell. She was mad.

Scene 2: We were in an ER watching a team work on this young girl while a narration from her point of view was played. She didn’t know how this could be happening. She was just having fun. She heard the doctor say that it didn’t look like she was going to make it. Her heart wasn’t responding to any of their treatments. She couldn’t understand how that was possible. She was too young.

Her parents rushed frantically into the room crying and calling out to her and telling her they loved her. The ER doctor said she was sorry, but there was nothing more they could do. Her heart had stopped. They had done everything they could but she was gone. Her parents pleaded with them to keep trying. To not give up on their little girl. But it was over.

Scene 3: We went to this young girl’s funeral. A minister spoke briefly, then her parents spent time at the casket, placing flowers and a teddy bear inside. Then we all offered our condolences to the parents and paid our respects at the casket. In place of the girl, there was a mirror that urged us to not make choices that could put us in this situation.

We returned to the room where we had watched the video and the tour director shared many facts and details regarding teen drug use. By the end of eighth grade one in five students will have used marijuana. By the time they graduate, 48% of all teenagers will have used illicit drugs. 48%–nearly half. That number is staggering to me.

An undercover police officer talked to us about heroin. It is the most used drug in our area. Heroin. In our nice little community of mostly middle class families. Heroin. There was a Pittsburgh police officer who was arrested a week ago when she was caught with 70 bags of heroin in her vehicle. Heroin. (Heroin is serious. That scares me … a lot.)

Then we heard from two recovering heroin addicts. Amber and Bob.

Bob is in his early 20s; he’s been clean for nearly three years. He goes to NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings pretty much every day. Every one of his friends that he used with–from high school and after–has overdosed and died. Every one of them. He was the only person left. It’s what spurred him to take the opportunity offered to him to get clean. He had tried many other times, so far this one is working. He said it’s been a long road and that every day he has the same goal–to live one more day clean. Every day is a struggle.

Amber just turned 20 and has been clean for 10 months. She was a good student from a good family. She was an athlete and active in school. Her school friends were good girls too. None of them used drugs. Her older boyfriend did, though. So she did. She started with pills and pretty quickly was doing heroin. She used to shoot up in her bedroom and then go downstairs for game nights and family time. Her parents didn’t ask questions or suspect anything. When her mom found pills in her purse, Amber said she was holding them for a friend. Her mom believed her. They didn’t like the boyfriend, but whenever they pushed for Amber to stop seeing him, it just made her want to be with him more. Amber was arrested the same month she was supposed to go off to college. She propositioned an undercover cop in exchange for drugs.

After they shared their stories we had a Q & A session. Parents and kids were able to ask questions … there were many. Near the end, one mother asked several back to back while interjecting her thoughts and experiences. I was starting to get upset because I felt like she was badgering these two people who voluntarily shared their stories of addiction, struggle, failure and their current success; they had made themselves vulnerable in the hopes that their experiences could serve as an example to the young kids in the audience so that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes they had. That by baring their souls, other kids and their families might be spared the horrible, painful, devastating lives they have led because of the choices they had made when they were younger.

This mother repeatedly talked about the parents “in THIS community” who would host parties for their teenaged kids and their friends so they could drink, thinking that by keeping them “supervised” and taking their keys they were being responsible and setting a good example. She pointedly asked what Bob’s parents missed–what signs didn’t they see? Did he have a “normal” family? Was there other addiction in his family? She asked Amber what her parents could have done–should have done–differently to stop this. She wanted to know why Amber’s parents didn’t see that she was high.

I was very frustrated and upset that she was asking these accusatory questions. And then it hit me.

She was scared. This mother was afraid that her “normal” kids from a “normal” family could be Amber or Bob. She was terrified that she might not have done something important that could make the difference in whether or not her kids make the choice to do drugs. That her kids–that she’s worked to so hard to protect and guide and love and mold and parent–might fall to the pressure from their peers to try something. And that they might become an addict too. This mother was realizing that there comes a time when we parents are no longer driving the car. We just have to hope that when our kids take the keys that they will do the right thing. We just have to hope.

With kids, it’s a very slippery slope. Sometimes a little mistake is just that–a small mistake, an error in judgement. Pick up the pieces and move on. Try again. Other times it becomes so much more. While kids (teens and preteens, especially) are trying to find themselves–to figure out who they are, what they want and where they’re going, to determine where they fit in–sometimes they make the wrong decisions. That’s what life is all about. You and I and everyone in this world have made mistakes along the way. Usually that’s a good thing. We can learn a lot from mistakes. But some bad choices or wrong decisions have far more impact and reach than we are prepared to handle.

The scary part of parenting is realizing that there comes a point when our kids need to make decisions on their own, influenced by peers, teachers, coaches, family members, and influenced (we hope) by us. It’s terrifying to think that everything we’ve done well as parents–all that we’ve diligently tried to get right, day in and day out–might not matter in the end because our children’s friends will have a bigger impact on them than we’re willing to accept.

I think that’s what was going through that mother’s head as she grilled Bob and Amber. She was desperately searching for affirmation that she’s doing the right things. That she hasn’t missed something. She wanted to know for sure that her kids wouldn’t become Amber or Bob–or worse.

We can’t have that assurance, no matter how intensely we wish for it. What we can do, the only thing we can do, is keep doing what we have been for our kids their whole life: love them, talk to them, be open with them, ask questions, answer questions, guide them, let them learn from their mistakes and discuss how their choices and decisions impacted the end result, model the behaviors we want to see, be honest, and spend time with them.

Spending time with our kids is the single most important factor in connecting with them and helping them build the skills to make big decisions. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s as close as we’ll probably get. None of us can see how life turns out–not for us, not for our kids. All we can do is try to be a better parent to our kids every single day. Talk with them–about everything. Talk early. Talk often. Listen. Live. Learn.

If you have the opportunity to participate in a program like Reality Tour, I highly recommend it. It’s a great way to start the conversation with your child if you’re not sure where to begin. It’s a great way to keep the conversation going if you’ve already been talking about it.

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