• Christine Roslund, MFT, CPC

What Parents Don’t Know About Why Young Adults Use Drugs and Alcohol

The other day I was reading a book by Jon Daily called Addictions: The Pathological Relationship to Intoxication and the Interpersonal Neurobiology Underpinnings. One thing stood out for me, and I felt it was important to call attention to it. It was this: the reasons why adolescents and young adults use substances, and the sometimes-naïve perceptions of it that their parents have.

Daily writes about a 2007 study that revealed the reasons why adolescents turned to drugs and alcohol. He says that “adolescents were significantly more likely to think that kids use drugs to help with pressures and stress of school (73%) than they were to view use as a means to have fun (26%).”

Here are the results of the study:

% Agree Strongly/Somewhat

Kids use drugs to deal with the pressures and school stress 73

Kids use drugs to help them feel better about themselves 65

Kids use drugs to look cool 65

Drugs help kids deal with problems at home 55

Kids use drugs to improve their athletic performance 54

Drugs help you forget your troubles 43

Drug users feel adventurous 48

Marijuana helps you relax 43

Drugs help you lose weight 43

Kids use drugs to improve their physical appearance 43

Being high feels good 40

Drugs help you relax socially 35

Drugs help kids when they’re having a hard time 34

Parties are more fun with drugs 26

Drugs are fun 26

Kids use drugs to help them study better 20

Daily also describes an accompanying Partnership for a Drug-free America study of parents’ attitudes about teen drug use (released in June 2007). It revealed that only 7% of parents believe that teens use drugs to cope with stress, despite the fact that 73% of teens offer up that rationale.

This astonishingly large discrepancy between how adolescents and their parents view the reasons for substance use in teenagers is a serious issue. Many parents aren’t getting that stress and emotional factors often cause adolescents and young adults to turn to intoxication as a coping strategy. Stress among adolescent and young adults has been increasing over the years, and rates of increased anxiety and depression are skyrocketing in this fast-paced, competitive world, one that is hard for even the strongest adults to keep up with. I believe that we, as adults, need to support young people by teaching them to manage stress in a more effective and constructive way. This will allow them to increase their problem-solving skills, self-esteem and to thrive in their lives.

This stage of development is a vulnerable time for young people. They are individuating, trying to figure out who they are and whom they would like to become. Their brains are not fully developed until they are 25 years old, and until then they are more prone to indulging in risk-taking behaviors. Adolescents and young adults need parents who are going to show up for them. Here are some tips parents can use to really support their young adults and help them build resiliency and positive coping skills.

  • Help them build affect regulation – the ability to manage both positive and negative emotions. Ideally, this skill is instilled from a young age by parents or caretakers who are attuned to their children’s needs. Affect regulation helps young people stay in tune with their own needs and better manage life’s ups and downs. If your young adult is having difficulties with affect regulation, the following items will help build it.

  • Pay attention to them

  • Listen, really listen to what they’re saying (not what you want to hear)

  • Ask questions to really understand where they’re coming from, and so they will feel understood

  • Show that you’re genuinely engaged by using body language that shows you are interested, caring and making them a priority

  • Allow them to fully express themselves, and don’t overreact if they open up to you with what is going on with them (if you feel overwhelmed, get support from friends or other parents or professionals)

  • Take to heart what your young adult is sharing with you, especially if they’re having a difficult time or feeling frustrated, disappointed or struggling.

  • Let them vent and be empathic by letting them know that the troubles will pass. They are a part of life. Don’t lecture or say how they could handle things differently.

  • Learn to provide support by strengthening your young adult’s sense of self.

Supportive and effective parenting of adolescents and young adults means believing in what your child is telling you. Slow down, connect, have a real conversation, ask questions and let your young adult know that you are there for them. Too often, parents are feeling their own stresses and are overwhelmed, and this either gets displaced onto their kids or interferes with their ability to tune into what their adolescent is going through. This adds even more stress to their adolescent’s or young adult’s life. Parents can be more supportive to their adolescents by managing their own stress, being aware of what is truly happening in their young adult’s life and modeling how to appropriately manage stress, without turning to substances.

For those of you who are concerned about your adolescent or young adult’s substance use, I highly recommend Jon Daily’s book. It explains how addiction works and how recovery can start to happen. If you’re struggling with learning how to coach your adolescent or young adult through these difficult years, you may want some support yourself. I help parents develop these new skills so that they can have stronger, healthier, more connected relationships with their young adults.

When parents are on the same page as their adolescent or young adult, healing can start to occur and make the biggest difference. Sometimes it may seem easier not to see what’s really going on, but the consequences can be detrimental. Anything is manageable, as long as it’s being addressed. Don’t be afraid to see what’s really going on in your family’s life.


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