Teen Drug Use: Where should Parents Draw the Line?

One of the most difficult parts of being a parent is educating your children about drugs and addiction setting clear guidelines for them to follow. But while every parent’s beliefs in this regard might be different, the results are often confusing despite even the best of intentions: “children will be children”, as the old adage goes. And while many people believe that just talking to your teenage children about drugs is enough, what you say and how you say it will make the difference between a teen that makes their own educated decisions and one that makes decisions to spite you or in spite of your best efforts. Consequently, parents must educate themselves on the truth about drug abuse and drug addiction as well as their children.

There are three general approaches to drugs and teens:

1) Zero Tolerance

Zero tolerance is aptly named and is among the more trendy policies in American schools and lawmaking, but can apply to parents setting boundaries with their children as well. If you set a zero tolerance policy on drugs, your teen could very well rebel against it – especially if you provide inaccurate or exaggerated information in order to support your position. Considering the wildly disproportionate responses to zero tolerance policies set in schools around the nation, it’s likely that you’ll encounter some of the same difficulties enforcing similar rules with your teen. In fact, in an article by Marc Levy, Cambridge School Committee Vice Chairman Marc McGovern is quoted as saying:

“Any of the research, any of the work being done out there in the field, it’s pretty clear that that deterrent factor of ‘We’re going to punish you if you do this’ really doesn’t work with a lot of people, and it certainly doesn’t work with teenagers to change their behavior.” (1)

However, the line between firm boundaries and zero tolerance is seemingly thin.

2) Tolerance & Understanding

Many parents – especially those who casually used drugs themselves at one time – practice a policy of understanding and tolerance to varying degrees. These parents might feel that it’s better that their teen use tobacco or alcohol or marijuana and that punishment for these behaviors should be light or non-existent. However, many substance abuse experts have theorized that these lesser drugs – including caffeine – can act as gateway drugs to more harmful substances like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. (2)

Some parents may practice tolerance by default because they fear driving their teen to further rebellion should they punish them. Still others believe that their child is out of control and practice tolerance as a method of “keeping the peace.”

3) The Truth with Guidance

Ultimately, teens will make their own decisions and we as parents can only influence them – we cannot control them and any attempts to do so may backfire. For this reason the best policy is likely one of honesty: no exaggerations, no scare tactics, and no dishonesty. Teens that are offered the truth are more likely to be truthful in return, which can make all the difference when it comes to understanding what’s going on with your kid.

If you’re struggling with a drug or alcohol problem, you need to get help before it impacts your children. Call the number at the top of your screen right now for a free, confidential consultation. We can help you no matter where you are or what time it is.


(1) Levy, Marc Zero-Tolerance Draws Criticism even as Teen Drug use Rises 05/19/2010 Cambridge Day News
(2) Wikipedia Gateway Drug Theory

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