On a warm day in September, Penny received a call from her oldest daughter. But what would typically be a light-hearted conversation about the week’s events and happenings was tragically different this time.
Mom, it’s about Kyle.
Kyle was the baby of the family. As the youngest child of a single parent, Kyle was protective of his mom, Penny, and was probably the most affectionate of her children. Outside the home, Kyle was a gifted athlete, earning a place on the varsity swim team. He was a decent student, with a close group of friends. After graduating high school, Kyle packed his things, and moved out of his mom’s house, promising her that he would be safe, and would make sure to check in with her from time-to-time. He was off to make a life for himself, and Penny knew he would succeed, because Kyle was an all-around good kid.
Mom, I’m here at the hospital. It’s Kyle. He just passed away from a heroin overdose.
The words sounded unreal to Penny. Her son gone? From drugs? There were never any signs that Kyle was using narcotics. He was a talented kid. A loving son. There had to be some mistake.
As the tragic story unfolded, Penny found out that Kyle and some of his friends had been using heroin for some time. At the time of his death, Kyle’s friends knew something was wrong with him, but not wanting to get their friend in trouble, they maintained a code of silence, never realizing that Kyle would eventually succumb to the drug.
While profoundly sad, Kyle’s story is not unique today. What was once abnormal behavior has now become the new normal for many kids. It’s not just the teens with marijuana t-shirts who meet underneath the bleachers at lunch. Athletes, musicians, scholars and the good kids you never thought would abuse drugs or alcohol are, in fact, doing just that. It’s a new generation of good kids engaging in dangerous activities. And if you think, my son or daughter would never get involved in that sort of risky behavior, think again. The National Institute on Drug Abuse recently reported the following. In 2012, 6.5 percent of 8th graders, 17.0 percent of 10th graders, and 22.9 percent of 12th graders used marijuana in the past month—an increase among 10th and 12th graders from 14.2 percent, and 18.8 percent in 2007. In the same year, 14.8 percent of high-school seniors used a prescription drug non-medically in the past year. And In 2012, 3.6 percent of 8th graders, 14.5 percent of 10th graders, and 28.1 percent of 12th graders reported getting drunk in the past month. These substances are increasingly available and accessible. And what makes them even more dangerous is the fact that the kids who use them are often committed to keeping a code of silence. Chances are you won’t hear your child’s friends tell you that your son is smoking pot or your daughter is binge drinking at parties. Even when the stories are swapped from peer-to-peer, they may never reach the ears of a parent.
In order to engage with good kids involved in dangerous activities, we first have to understand what’s at the root of the behavior. Why are teens, even the ones we would least suspect, turning to drugs and alcohol?
In teen culture, there is a constant push and search for the next “high.” That doesn’t necessarily mean a drug high. It could be the rush that comes from jumping out of a plane, getting a tattoo, piercing something on the body, dancing at a rock concert, skating down a steep hill, or playing the latest video game. Teens are looking for the thrill of experience. And when one outlet no longer holds the excitement it once did, drugs or alcohol may provide the next big rush.
Along with a search for ever-increasing “highs”, teens are navigating a very narcissistic world. All moms and dads have to do is hop on Facebook to see kids posting pictures or writing messages with the implied captions, “Look at Me! Look at what I bought! Look at what I wear! Look at what I can do! Look at what I can accomplish!” Substance abuse among teens is not about being rebellious; it’s more about being noticed. When the accolades and accomplishments don’t feel like enough, teens might turn to drugs or alcohol to cope, find acceptance or be respected. And there’s no shortage of substances available to kids who look for them.
Every teen feels the pressures of our culture. But our so-called “good” teens struggle under the added burden of trying not to disappoint mom or dad. If your son or daughter is engaging in risky behavior, they may feel additional pressure due to the fact that they don’t want you to find out. Like Kyle, they work harder to hide it. That’s why even parents of good kids need to be observant. Now, I’m not encouraging you to snoop or spy on your child. But you should be keeping a close eye on your teenager’s behavior, social group and environment. Take a peek into your son’s bedroom occasionally. Do you see any drug paraphilia? Can you smell incense or heavy masking odors? Invite your teen’s friends to the house, and get to know them. Establish trust with your child’s peers. Keep tabs on where your son or daughter goes. Are they attending parties where you know illegal substances are used? Do they disappear at odd times of the day? All these could be signs your teen is involved in dangerous behavior.
If you discover your child is caught up in substance abuse, get help immediately! It’s not just a phase, or mistaken experimenting. Regardless of what teens may hear, see or believe, there is no such thing as harmless drug use or getting drunk safely. The longer the risky behavior is allowed to continue, the higher the chances are that your child will wind up getting hurt. So if substance abuse is evident, take the steps to help your child right away. Get them in a program, or take them to see a counselor immediately.
Lastly, don’t think that your child is the exemption to the rule. If 90% of teens are experimenting with drugs and alcohol, are you willing to bet that your son or daughter is in the minority? Ask questions, watch closely and understand that even good kids can get caught up in harmful practices. If you do, you’ll be better prepared to help your teen escape and avoid this kind of risky behavior.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.
His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.