Have you ever felt as though your teenager is rebelling out of fear? If so, science backs that conclusion. We now know that adolescence is the stage of life most closely linked to feeling apprehension.
It’s not just your imagination; in all likelihood, your teen feels more fear than you do.
The Power of Love
In the aptly-titled New York Times article Why Teenagers Act Crazy, Richard A. Friedman, MD writes, “Largely because of a quirk of brain development, adolescents .... experience more anxiety and fear and have a harder time learning how not to be afraid than either children or adults.”
As it turns out, the amygdala (which processes fear) develops faster than the prefrontal cortex (which aids in reasoning and rational decision-making). The good news is that you can help quell some of that fear by providing consistent love and support.
In this post, we’ll outline our top five tips for diverting teenage defiance in a drug-free direction. Along the way, we’ll challenge outdated assumptions and pave the way for a healthy life in adolescence and beyond.
Tip #1 Respect and love the son or daughter you actually have.
The first and most fundamental reality of parenting a teen is simply this: You can’t change your offspring into something that they’re not. You cannot force, coerce, or bribe them into changing to suit your needs, preferences, and dreams.
What you can do is to honor the teen you have, exactly as they are. Encourage your teen to explore their actual interests, not the ones that you’d prefer them to have.
If your son loves musicals instead of sports, if your daughter would rather dissect frogs than don a party dress...then so be it!
But what does respecting your teen’s individuality and selfhood have to do with drug use? A great deal, as it turns out…because problems start when teens feel forced to take their true selves underground. Trouble begins when teens feel as though they must hide from you, rather than be honest with you.
Your job as a parent is to find a way to be delighted and happy with who your teen is, not who you wish they would be.
Tip #2 Normalize rebellion and pick your battles wisely.
Ever heard the expression, What you resist, persists? The more you clamp down and try to prevent any form of teenage defiance, the more you’ll exacerbate the situation. Expect some form of rebellion and take it in stride. There’s no need to overreact or take it personally; it’s just part of normal teenage development.
That said, this isn’t about creating a no-rules existence for your teen. Rather, it’s about holding firmly to some basic, well-considered ground rules and then letting the rest go.
As Pamela Druckerman writes in her parenting memoir Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, “The ideal of the cadre [frame] is that parents are very strict about certain things but very relaxed about most everything else.” For example, you might decide that while speaking respectfully is always a hard-and-fast rule, the way your teen chooses to dress is up for grabs.
Tip #3 Address mental health issues and trauma effectively.
We now know that much drug use is driven by untreated mental illness and trauma. Most people who have addiction issues have a dual diagnosis - that is, a mental health concern paired with substance abuse issues.
When trauma goes unhealed, it contributes mightily to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. As Christopher Kennedy Lawford and Beverly Engel write in their recent book When Your Partner Has An Addiction:
“The mental health and substance treatment communities have only recently come to recognize … that those who suffer from substance abuse were usually traumatized in childhood.”
This is not to say that you failed as a parent. Even children with the most loving and well-intentioned families can experience trauma. The question is, what are you going to do about it? If your teen shows signs of mental health issues or trauma, seek out professional supports now.
Tip #4 Facilitate a “Rat Park” environment.
In a landmark 1981 study, psychologist Bruce Alexander demonstrated that when lab rats are placed in a fun, social, and animal-friendly environment - in a “Rat Park” - they actually avoid drug-laced water. However, when lab rats are placed in an isolated, sterile, confined space, they choose a drugged water supply.
Rats tend to use drugs when they want to escape from a hostile environment...and so do humans. As Dr. Martha Beck writes of her clients in the Oprah Magazine article Escape Your Rat Race:
“ … They spend many hours playing roles that don't match their innate personalities and preferences, dulling the pain with mood-altering substances. Miserable with their jobs, relationships, or daily routines, they gulp down a fifth of Scotch … super glue phony smiles to their faces, and head on out to whatever rat race is gradually destroying them.”
The good news is that when people break free from environments that don’t support their true selves, their desire to use goes way down.
As a parent, you can support your teen in staying drug-free by paying attention to what feels right for them. If you notice that your adolescent always seems miserable after track practice and happy after volleyball, you can gently point out what you see. More importantly, you can support them in letting go of activities, environments, and relationships that aren’t a good fit.
Tip #5 Set clear boundaries surrounding drug use.
As your teen approaches adulthood, your role as a parent is not to control them, but rather to help them to increase their own autonomy in a healthy way. One way to do that is to communicate your own family boundaries in a calm, no-drama manner. As the Mayo Clinic article Teen Drug Use: Help Your Teen Avoid Drugs suggests:
“Explain your family rules and what the consequences of using drugs will be. Rules might include leaving a party where drug abuse occurs and not riding in a car with a driver who's been using drugs. Be sure to consistently discipline your teen if he or she breaks the rules.”
Note that effective discipline isn’t about punishment; instead, it’s about providing logical consequences. For example, if your son or daughter drives home drunk, the natural consequence is taking away the car keys for a significant length of time. This prepares your child for the adult world, wherein drunk drivers lose their licenses and driving privileges.
Parenting Without Guilt and Shame
Finally, remember that you don’t need to resort to using shame and guilt to “correct” your teen’s course. Instead, lovingly provide natural consequences; it will have much more of an effect than your words ever could.
Adolescence can be a bumpy time for families. But when you offer a nonjudgmental, supportive presence, you can give your teen the best possible chance to make healthy choices and wise decisions.
At the end of the day, though, it’s up to them...partially-developed prefrontal cortices and all. Scary, isn’t it?
Meet Our Guest Blogger - Caroline McGraw
Caroline McGraw writes for The Clearing, a 12 Step Alternative residential addiction treatment program especially for individuals with Dual Diagnosis. She's also the creator of A Wish Come Clear, a personal development blog that gives you carte blanche to change your life.
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