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Preventing Teen Substance Abuse: Teachable Moments

November 14, 2014  |  Falmouth Enterprise

Dr. Michael Bihari

Our teens are bombarded by alcohol and drug-related messages on a regular basis. American pop culture often seems to encourage alcohol and drug use, which can desensitize and normalize these high-risk behaviors. For example, the large national chain Toys R Us recently started to sell action figures based on the popular television show Breaking Bad. These figures, with detachable guns, cash and crystal meth caused a national outcry and the company pulled the so-called toys from their shelves.

The Jelly Belly Candy Company, makers of jelly beans sold throughout the country, recently introduced new flavor Draft Beer, which the company promotes as the world’s first beer-flavored jelly bean, “with a jewel-like finish for a fresh from the tap ‘bubbly’ look.”

According to the Ohio-based Drug Free Alliance, “On the surface, alcohol-flavored candy like these, may not seem like a huge deal. But think about it for a minute and realize the unconscious message being sent to our children.”

Alcohol-flavored jelly beans are no big deal. My friends think it’s funny to bring beer-flavored candy to school. Plus, I like the taste of these jelly beans. And if this is what alcohol tastes like, then I would probably like it too. They say beer is an acquired taste? Well, I can acquire it a lot earlier now.”

As parents and grandparents we can turn these high-risk, potentially harmful messages into positive lessons. One good way to do this is to take advantage of ''teachable moments'' – situations in which the subject of teen alcohol or drug abuse comes up naturally. You can use these opportunities to have a dialogue with your kids about the risks of substance abuse; to make sure your teens know your values; and, to give your kids a chance to share their views and knowledge. Your teen may not be the only one learning something from the conversation!

Examples of Teachable Moments

A conversation about domestic violence with my granddaughters: During a recent visit with my nine year-old twin granddaughters the subject of domestic violence concerning NFL players came up on the news. Since the sight of a well-known football player beating up his wife in an elevator did not seem to bother the twins, we seized the moment to discuss our feelings about the incident. It was enlightening for all of us and clearly made us aware of how desensitized our kids are because of all the violence reported in the media or shown in children’s entertainment. 

Your teen asks if you drank alcohol when you were a kid: Don’t let your past stop you from talking to your child about underage drinking. If you drank as a teenager, be honest. Acknowledge that it was risky. Make sure to emphasize that we now know more about the risks to children who drink underage. You could even give your child an example of a painful moment that occurred because of your underage drinking,

The summer I was 17, I went to a party at the beach and drank so much that I passed out and spent the night in the emergency room. 

Marijuana legalization and your use of pot as a youth: There has been a lot of discussion in the media about marijuana legalization — sharing with your teen that pot is dangerous for the developing brain is appropriate. If you are a “boomer” and experienced the drug culture in the 1960’s don’t be surprised to get questions about your own drug use. It’s okay to be honest about your experience and explain that we have learned a lot about the dangers of pot over the years and that the marijuana available now is much more potent.

I did smoke pot in high school, but back then, I felt like I had to do drugs to fit in with other kids. Now, I see that a lot of that pressure was in my head; I don’t think anyone would have cared if I said no. I regret that I was weak and didn’t speak up for myself.

Uncle John drinks too much at Thanksgiving dinner and causes a scene.

Although some kids seem not to be bothered by an adult drunk, others may be alarmed, especially if it’s a relative or family friend. While you’re concerned that your child (and the rest of the family) witnessed something uncomfortable, it’s an opportunity for the family to discuss serious, long-term consequences of alcohol abuse. 

I’m sorry you had to see Uncle John get drunk. Drinking too much can make people lose control. Your uncle started drinking in high school and his alcohol addiction made it hard for him to finish college and hold onto a decent job.

Reading the Falmouth Enterprise, your son learns that a local teen had a heroin overdose: When it comes to who's abusing opiates, your teen may be very reluctant to chat about friends. However, he may be open to talking about teen opiate abuse in general. It's a way for you to connect and talk about the risks and serious consequences of prescription pill and heroin abuse. 

What do you and your friends think about all the heroin overdoses? 

How can you and I make things safer?

Your daughter read a magazine cover story about a well-known movie star checking into rehab for the third time: For teens, it can be upsetting to see someone they idolize go through a very public struggle with drugs. You can help your daughter better understand the connection between seemingly innocent experimentation and addiction.

When she started using drugs, she probably thought it was fun, and that she could control it, but like a lot of people, she couldn’t. It’s sad that someone so young can develop a problem with addiction. Even with all her fame and money, she’ll be struggling with this for the rest of her life.

These are just a few examples for starting a conversation with your teen. While you need to share what you know, don’t use a teachable moment to deliver a lecture. Being open and receptive will get your teen talking. 

Recommended Resource

Parent Talk Kit: Tips for Talking and What to Say to Prevent Drug and Alcohol Abuse 

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