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Vulnerability to Substance Use Among Adolescents
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In this section, we will discuss the four reasons teenagers are more prone to addiction. We will also discuss the "Chemical Use Questionnaire" as a technique to start a dialogue about substance abuse with your addicted teenage client.
As you know, teen addiction has had considerable media coverage over the past few years. The National Household Survey indicated that 11 million adolescents between 12 and 17 drank heavily. A University of Michigan survey showed abusive drinking levels in 15% of 8th graders, 24% of 10th graders, and 30% of high school seniors.
I find that the first question parents of addicted teens ask me is "Why?"
Sarah, 42, was upset when she found a large bag of marijuana and a bottle of vodka in her 16-year-old daughter Lisa’s dresser drawer. She said "I just don’t understand! Lisa is so smart! She was on the honor roll all the time, she had a great chance of getting into a great college. Why is she doing such a scary, stupid thing? She knows better!"
I explain to parents that ask "why" that there are four main reasons teenagers today are under much greater pressure from their peers and their culture to use alcohol and other drugs. Here’s some basic information I provide to parents.
Four Reasons Teenagers are Prone to Addiction
♦ #1 - Instant-Gratification
First, your child lives in an instant-gratification society with instant-gratification expectations. As you are aware, alcohol and other drugs work instantly. As soon as the substance is in your body, your feelings change, with no real effort on your part.
♦ #2 - Advertising
Second, I tell the parents that the amount of advertising for alcohol and other drugs has more than doubled in the past fifteen years. Your child is constantly bombarded by the message that alcohol and other drugs are the answer to all of their problems, questions, and insecurities.
At the same time, research indicates that teenagers today know less about alcohol and other drugs than the previous generation. Dr. Lloyd Johnson of the University of Michigan calls this process "generational forgetting". He states that less information about drugs and alcohol is getting to teens, "like they are going through the 70s all over again". Dr. Johnson states that a component to this "generational forgetting" is that your teen is desensitized to the danger of alcohol and other drugs.
I also like to provide my clients who are receptive with additional factual information by stating, A Weekly Reader study of 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students reported that 21% did not think wine coolers were harmful, 17% did not consider sniffing glue dangerous, and 49% did not think smoking could be harmful. A University of Michigan survey of 8th graders showed that only 50% thought there was a health risk in smoking more than a pack of cigarettes per day.
Dr. Johnson believes that this desensitization is largely due to the celebration of alcohol and others drugs in advertising, as well as entertainment media directed at teenagers.
♦ #3 - Time Spent Watching TV
Third, the amount of time teenagers have spent watching television has produced a passive generation. The average high school senior has watched between 18 and 20 thousand hours of television, which is more than twice as much time as it takes to graduate from high school. As you may have experienced, too much television squashes creativity and promotes passivity, which is a perfect setup for substance abuse. When you take alcohol or other drugs, all you have to do is ‘let it happen to you’, which makes television’s passive, ‘do it to me’ style the perfect model of addictive behavior.
♦ #4 - Availability of Drugs
In addition to the fact that we live in an instant-gratification society, that the amount of advertising for alcohol and other drugs has more than doubled in the last 15 years, and that television has produced a passive generation, the fourth reason I give parents is that alcohol and drugs are available in all of our communities. Today, the statistics on the availability and use of alcohol and other drugs are virtually the same in both urban and rural areas.
While alcohol and other drugs are becoming more available, a significant number of treatment centers have closed in recent years. As you are aware, rising costs and decreasing insurance coverage are forcing many rehabilitation and treatment centers formerly available to teens to close their doors.
Although the ‘war on drugs’ is very public, very little comparatively has been done about the number one drug of choice of teenagers- alcohol. As you are aware, the attitude "Thank goodness my son/daughter is only getting drunk" is very common, and this keeps parents and communities from recognizing and responding to the danger signs of addiction.
Do you have a client that needs to be reminded that nearly 3 out of every 10 teenagers has a problem with alcohol, and that nearly one out of every four Americans is directly affected by the alcohol or other drug dependencies of a family member or friend? Would it be beneficial to play this section during a session with the parents of an addicted teen, or the addicted teen themselves?
♦ "Chemical Use Questionnaire" Technique
When I spoke to Sarah’s daughter Lisa about her marijuana and alcohol use, she was unwilling to describe her use as an addiction. To encourage a discussion about her drug use in general, I asked her to take the "Chemical Use Questionnaire".
I asked her to write "yes" or "no" to the following questions:
a. "Has a family member or friend expressed concern about your use?"
b. "Has your social life changed, or have you switched friends?"
c. "Have you experienced a negative consequence from your use?
Legal? Emotional? Physical?"
d. "Do you find that your behavior changes when you use chemicals?"
e. "Are you using chemicals to become more outgoing or to overcome fears?"
f. "Do you go against your values or morals when you use alcohol or other drugs?"
After Lisa wrote down her answers, I asked her to take a few moments to look at her responses, and think them over. After a few minutes, she admitted, "I wrote down mostly yes answers. Maybe we could talk a little more about this?"
In this section, we have discussed the four reasons teenagers are more prone to addiction. These are, we live in an instant-gratification society, the amount of advertising for alcohol and other drugs has more than doubled in the last 15 years, television has produced a passive generation, and alcohol and other drugs are available in all communities.
In the next section, we will discuss the four phases of addiction as a "feeling disease". These are, the user discovers substance-induced mood swings, the user seeks a mood swing, harmful dependence, and the user consumes more of the substance to feel ‘normal’.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Dow, S. J., & Kelly, J. F. (2013). Listening to youth: Adolescents’ reasons for substance use as a unique predictor of treatment response and outcome. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 27(4), 1122–1131.
Pedersen, E. R., Tucker, J. S., Davis, J. P., Dunbar, M. S., Seelam, R., Rodriguez, A., & D'Amico, E. J. (2020). Tobacco/nicotine and marijuana co-use motives in young adults: Associations with substance use behaviors one year later. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. Advance online publication.
Redner, R., White, T. J., Harder, V. S., & Higgins, S. T. (2014). Examining vulnerability to smokeless tobacco use among adolescents and adults meeting diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 22(4), 316–322.
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