The Cool Parent


I can vividly remember, as a struggling teenager, the conversation with my father the morning after getting caught drinking underage. I was fifteen and hungover. In a rusted 1985 Chevy Astro Van. The Old Yeller of transportation. The exhaust protested with each voyage across the Metairie metropolis. You could only enter the vehicle through the sliding door. It was eerily similar to Little Miss Sunshine, except this van had a lot less character and more saw dust. And instead of Steve Carell or a plot associated with a charming and dysfunctional family, there was instead my father and his furrowed eyebrows toward a heavily abused cracked windshield.

Frustrated. Disappointed. Lots of rhetorical questions and lectures to accompany them while we sat in the drive-thru of Tastee's Donuts on a Saturday morning. Glazed donuts, something, something. Pun about inebriation. 

Adolescence, whether folks like it or not, has a lot to do with curiosity and exploration. It comes with the package of developing autonomy. Parents should want their kids to explore. That's how they begin to understand more intimately who they really are. They will make mistakes. That's why we want our teens to share those inquiries at a time when they are surrounded with consistent support.

"What do you think would happen if you got alcohol poisoning? How would you feel about that? Not so good, huh?"
No answer.
"You could've been arrested for underage drinking. It's illegal what you did. You could get kicked out of school too. Completely jeopardize your career. Your life. Your mom is so upset."
No answer.
"So what were you thinking?"
"Clearly I wasn't."
"Duh." The '-uh' was dragged out as he was in between bites and fishing for his wallet to complete his purchase.

Clearly, he was angry. But anger's a secondary emotion. At his core, he was terrified. Scared of me falling into bad habits that could compromise my health, or the health of others. He was also scared of missing the opportunities to educate me on these risks. Most of all, he was hurt that I made these decisions. He processed these emotions verbally as the conversation eventually transitioned from contempt to concern.

I've worked with a good number of teenagers at this point who have experimented with drugs and alcohol - ranging from merely touching the stove to full-blown addiction. I get questions from parents often about how to best prepare their kids - and themselves - to make the right choices regarding substance use. With it being Carnival season, I figured it'd be helpful to share some insight on how parents can better prevent drug and alcohol use and abuse in their teens.

For one - teenagers are not "little adults." Their prefrontal cortex - the part of your brain that deals with decision making, planning, judgment, moderation of social behavior, and self-awareness, is in the very beginning stages of development. fMRI scanning has shown that this part isn't close to being fully developed until our late 20s and in some cases early 30s! There's a lot of growing left to do, and the usage of drugs and alcohol at that age can have severe neurodevelopmental consequences.

We can learn a lot about how prepared our kids are to say no to drugs or alcohol based on who they surround themselves with. It's the people, places, and things that can make a world of a difference. If your child surrounds himself/herself with individuals who share negative attitudes towards drugs and alcohol, he or she will be much more likely to abstain from using.

As parents, you must keep in mind that you are models of wellness in your own home. That means if you are consuming drugs or alcohol on a regular basis and are doing it in front of your kids, it will be much more difficult to deter your children from experimenting and engaging in risky behavior. You are still their primary educators and must take responsibility in demonstrating healthy attitudes regarding drug and alcohol use.

It's important to have a plan - especially for events such as dances, proms, concerts, and Mardi Gras. Talk to your children about what those situations may look like. Remind them of the legal consequences and that drug or alcohol consumption can put their health at risk. Make them vocalize to you what they should do if they are in such a situation. Most of all - encourage them to contact you in case if they feel unsafe and need a way out. Remove the consequences associated with it and make sure that they understand, above anything else, that they are welcome to reach out to you. It's far easier to take a phone call from your child in the middle of the night than from a state trooper or an emergency medical responder.

And finally - quit trying to teach your kids how to "socialize" or be "prepared for college" by sponsoring "safe places" to throw parties and provide alcohol or drugs. There's overwhelming research showcasing that distributing alcohol to minors - even when they are 18 and about to go off to college, significantly increases the likelihood that they will develop a pervasive addiction in their lifetime. The falsehood that they can always get their hands on it and that everyone is doing it perpetuates the idea that we should mitigate the risk by providing it ourselves, but it's that type of dangerous thinking that enables substance abuse.

Social Norms Theory, developed in the 1980s by H.W. Perkins and A.D. Berkowitz, posits that we underestimate the healthy behaviors of others and overestimate unhealthy behaviors - leaving our perception skewed to the idea that "everybody is doing it." The reality, though, is that drug or alcohol use in adolescents has had an overall nationwide downwards trend within the past quarter of a century. This is not to say that drug or alcohol use isn't a problem. It most absolutely is something that should continue to hold our concern. But it's very far away from everyone that is doing it.

I know I already said this in a previous post, but I'll say it again. Your children don't need an extra friend. They need an authoritative figure that can teach them right from wrong and how to take care of themselves. Someone that provides unconditional love and a secure figure to confide in when things get difficult. They're going to meet you with resistance - and that's okay. I'm sure I showed my father great resistance after getting caught. But he displayed to me some very important things in that conversation - his disapproval, frustration, hurt, compassion, love, and concern.

I didn't have a friend in him that day. I had something far more valuable.

Social Norms Theory
Myths Debunked: Underage Drinking of Alcohol at Home Leads to Real Consequences for Both Parents and Teens