Can you remember the first time your were offered drugs? Maybe it was a cigarette down behind the toilet block, a swig of whiskey at a your friends house, or trying a joint at a high school party?
Whatever the occasion, do you remember why you did it? If you can think of that reason, would an adult telling you “drugs are dangerous” have changed your decision?
Understanding why teenagers get involved with drugs is essential if you are serious about equipping them to make wise choices. It is hard to shape someone’s behaviour if you are unaware of the motivations that drive them.
Whether it is prevention or intervention, helping teens make sensible choices about drugs requires you to understand what motivates their decisions.
Often the conversation about teenagers and drugs focuses on the drugs as the main problem. Drugs are problematic, and their addictive nature has serious health implications. But it is teenagers who CHOOSE drugs. Drugs don’t choose teens and conscript them to a life of dependence. It is teenagers who make decisions. Be they good or bad, logical or illogical, teenagers make decisions about what they let into their bodies.
Helping teens make wise choices about drugs requires some understanding of the drivers of teenage behaviour, more particularly the motivations at work when teenagers choose to take drugs.
I won’t pretend to be able to cover such a complex topic in one post, but I hope this will get you started, if you haven’t already, thinking about dealing with your teenager and their motivations.
Here are 5 common reasons teenagers get involved in taking drugs.
If you were to ask teens why they tried drugs in the first place a common answer would be “I wanted to know what it was like.” Of course they do. Teenagers are out to explore the world and find out what it is like and how they feel about it. Adolescence is all about discovering the world and its many pleasures and possibilities.
An Unfortunate irony occurs when we educate teens about the dangers of drugs. What is the best way to spark a teenager’s curiosity? Tell them they can’t have it. What do we tell teenagers about drugs? You can’t have them. The natural teenage response is “Now I really want to try them.”
However it is not just adult warnings that generate teens curiosities. It is also adult behaviour. Whether it be in the home, socially, or through the media, teenagers are constantly exposed to adults using drugs. Often this adult usage is portrayed as pleasurable and something that is exciting and fun. Little wonder then that teens can’t wait to try.
Many teenagers experiment and decide its not for them. However for a significant minority what starts as an experiment fueled by curiosity evolves into regular use and addiction.
It is no secret how important fitting in is to teenagers. As they emerge from the shadow of their parents teens seek to establish their identity amongst their peers. Finding and fitting into a group of peers is one of the key tasks of adolescence.
It is this desire to belong and fit in that drive many teenagers to start experimenting with drugs. Not wanting to be left out or ostracized is a powerful driver for teenage behaviour. Equally powerful is the desire to part of shared experience with those who at the time matter most in life.
In sub-cultures where drug taking and alcohol consumption are focal points of social gathering, drug use becomes a significant marker of belonging. Sometimes the cost of saying no or missing out seems greater than the cost of getting involved with drugs.
As Parry says to Jack in the movie “The Fisher King” “You know why dogs do this? Because if feels good”
Why do teenagers use drugs? Because it feels good!
At a time in life when the teenage brain is wired to seek out stimulation and and intense experience the affects that drugs produce can be an offer too good to refuse. The heightened sensations that drugs create are a big lure to experience orientated adolescents.
The quest to experience pleasurable sensation often co-exists with belief that less inhibitions will result in a better time. In this way drugs offer a double attraction. They not only feel good, they allow teens to behave with more “freedom” and with this freedom many teens believe will come more pleasure.
Unfortunately the teenage brain will not balance this quest for heightened experience with the potential risks of physical, sexual, or relational harm that could result.
Of course the pleasure of drugs is more attractive to those for whom whom life while sober is far from pleasurable or enjoyable. For those who have little to hope for the future and are dissatisfied with the present, the momentary pleasure of drugs is a welcome escape.
While this reason seems terribly egocentric and the least glamorous of the five reasons, it is very real. As someone who grew up in a small country town I am very aware of how tedious boredom can be for a teenager, and consequently how powerful the desire to escape it can be.
In one study on teenage drug use it was found that bored teens were 50% more likely to get involved in drug use than those who weren’t. This likelihood increased significantly if you were a bored teen with money.
Most people know that drugs aren’t good for them (that’s why they’re never in the health food aisle). But just because something isn’t good for us , doesn’t mean it can’t make us feel better (more chocolate anyone?).
Often just surviving “now” is all that matters. Many people, teens included, who start using drugs are operating from the perspective “Right now, the substance seems better for me than the situation I am in.” Long term addiction, or ongoing health problems, pale into insignificance compared with dealing with the pain of the present.
Coping with intense and painful feelings is a common reason teenagers use drugs. Adolescence is a particularly emotional ride, and sometimes that can make it a painful ride. There is no shortage of possible sources. Family break ups, low self-esteem, social exclusion, bullying, romantic heartbreak, confusion about growing up, sporting or artistic failure, and the list goes on.
Coping with stress is becoming increasingly significant in the lives of teenagers. A 2008 study of over 6000 teenagers found that coping with the stress of school was by far the most common reason for teenagers choosing to use drugs.
How Does this Help
Put simply “Deal with the cause (or possible causes) not the symptoms.”
Foster a close and trusting relationship with your child from an early age and support and encourage positive behaviour. A safe home and a strong sense of acceptance and security go a significant way to alleviating several of the above motivations. Let them know they are loved and accepted no matter what.
Model appropriate behaviour. Telling teens drugs are bad while indulging in them yourself sends a terrible mixed message.
Encourage teenagers to take responsibility for their actions from an early age. Allow them to fail, let them own their mistakes, and when they do make mistakes teach them about resilience and coping with disappointment constructively.
Know who your teenagers friends are. Encourage them to have more than one social circle where they can find a sense of belonging. This way not all their social eggs are in one basket.
Encourage teens in hobbies or pursuits they find enjoyable or have talent in. Giving teens constructive outlets for their energy and avenues to establish confidence and self worth are important.
When your teen suffers a disappointment in life watch them carefully, and encourage them to talk to you or another trusted adult about how they feel. If they don’t come around seek more professional advice or help.
Give your teens tips on how to say “no” in a helpful way so they are prepared for when they are offered drugs.
Have open and honest discussions about drugs.
Image by -Skatelin-