Schools out! Teens know that last bell prior to summer break means the beginning of a welcome respite from hectic school schedules and homework. But when school is out teens and tweens have more downtime than they do during any other season … which means they run a higher risk of falling into the wrong pastimes.
According to a Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) report, each day in June and July, approximately 5,800 teens try marijuana for the first time. But the troubles don't stop there—incidences of first-time cigarette or alcohol use for underage kids also spike in the summer months.
Research shows that teens without constructive activities such as camp, work, or summer school are more likely to use drugs and alcohol than peers who keep themselves busy. "The kids who are most at risk are those whose time isn't structured," says Phillippe Cunningham, Ph.D, associate professor at Medical University of South Carolina's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science Family Services Research Center. "During the summer months, kids are out of school and are more likely to take risks they normally wouldn't when they aren't in the presence of adults."
Although that may seem scary, keep in mind not every child travels down the road of trouble. Even though it's impossible to monitor your teenager every hour of the day, there are some things parents can do to make a difference in a teen's decision to stay drug-free. After all, two-thirds of youth ages 13-17 say that upsetting their parents or losing the respect of family and friends is one of the main reasons they don't use drugs.
One way of steering your child clear of illegal substances is to talk to her about the risks involved in using drugs and alcohol. Explain the harm drugs can do to your child's physical and mental health, social life, and learning ability. Kids who learn about the dangers of drug abuse from their parents or caregivers are about 36 percent less likely to smoke marijuana, 50 percent less likely to use inhalants, 56 percent less likely to use cocaine, and 65 percent less likely to use LSD than kids who don't.
And even if your teen has a job and makes a disposable income of his own, find out how he's spending the money. Also ask questions about what type of work environment he's in and with whom he's working.
Keep in contact with the people who are around your teen: "Occasionally check up on where your child is," suggests Cunningham. "If she says she's going to a neighbor's, call up the neighbor just to make sure." Introduce yourself to your child's adult supervisors like camp counselors, coaches, and employers—they might be able to clue you in on any changes they might see in your teen's behavior.
Are there ways to tell if you should be concerned about your teen? Cunningham lists behavioral shifts as warning signs that there might be something wrong: "If there is a dramatic change in your child's behavior, going from one extreme to the other ... it's the number one indicator that there might be drug abuse. For example, a child who really used to care about her appearance no longer cares about her appearance anymore." Other signs Cunningham points out are changes in peer groups and physical indicators such as smelling of smoke or having red eyes.
The best way to find out what's going on with your kids is to spend time talking to them. Let them know that if they ever have any questions or concerns, they can turn to you, or that you can help them get the answers they may need from a trusted source. For example, your child’s pediatrician is a great resource that your tween or teen can reach out to for information on how to live a healthy life—not just now, but into their adult years, too. At your tween’s or teen’s next check-up, discuss with your family practitioner a plan for heading off diabetes, heart disease, human papillomavirus (HPV), and other preventable health issues that can surface later in life.
Cunningham stresses the importance of an open dialogue between you and your teen: "Communication needs to start early in a kid's life. I like to recommend to parents that they talk to their kids in general ... get to know your child, learn his likes and dislikes. This sets the stage for when you have real concerns about your child."
And when you do have queries for your teen, be direct, says Cunningham: "When you raise a question, look your child in the eye and tell him, 'I have a concern.' If he doesn't want to talk about it right at that moment, it's okay to negotiate with your child. Ask when would be a good time to discuss the matter."
"By nature, children want things their own way, but as parents we have to keep in mind that they are children and need our guidance," says Cunningham. "One thing I've learned with kids is that if you're doing it out of love, it's okay with them."