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Studies indicate that young people begin experimenting with alcohol and other drugs because of curiosity and peer pressure.
The experience is almost always pleasurable and usually with friends in a “party” atmosphere, and there are no negative consequences attached to the experience.
“I had my first drink when I was 12,” Robert, 16, told the group. “I was curious. I never planned to get into trouble.”
Robert is one of 1,500 adolescents we have spoken to in the last several years about their alcohol and other drug use. Their names, their using histories, their ages and other demographics, their family dynamics, religions and ethnic groups are different but they all have the same perception of their alcohol and other drug use — “I never planned to get into trouble.”
People drink alcohol again because they like the effect.
Early alcohol use seems to be fun and enhances what’s going on. The drinker has rules about when he or she will or won’t drink. Over use is the exception, not the rule.
Michelle, 17, an admitted alcoholic who has been sober five months, has said,
“Adults need to understand that peer pressure isn’t a bunch of older ‘bad’ kids forcing unwilling little kids to drink or use other drugs. ‘Peer pressure’ is when you see your friends doing something that they seem to be enjoying. You want to be part of what’s going on. You want to enjoy it too.” She continues: “I was 13 when I had my first drink. No one said “Michelle, come try this!’ My friends were 13 also. They didn’t care if I drank anything or not.”
Adolescence is a time of change and confusion.
Kids look at their peers and rarely feel as good as what they see, seldom feel as competent as their peers appear, and generally feel inadequate. Their self esteem is damaged because they interpret information through a filter and are not properly equipped to determine its validity.
The young person feels as though he is full of holes, something is missing that he doesn’t believe is missing in other people, he feels a void he is certain is unique to him. Alcohol and other drugs seem to fill those holes, quiet the confusion of adolescence, and helps promote the idea that “I am invincible” and, for the moment, it makes the adolescent feel good.
“I didn’t drink every day. I still don’t” Robert said. “At first I only drank about every other weekend. It was fun. It made me feel the same as every one else seemed to be. I only got drunk if I had made plans with my parents to spend the night at a friend’s house.”
There is a preoccupation with using and with the rituals that go along with securing the drugs in just the right amounts.
“I began changing the rules I had about when I would drink rather quickly,” Michelle said. “Alcohol didn’t make me feel better than, it just made feel as good as I thought everyone else was. I started mixing other drugs with the alcohol so I could feel that feeling faster or to try to make it last longer.”
At this point, Michelle had moved to the dependence stage of alcohol and other drug use. There is a preoccupation with using and with the rituals that go along with securing the drugs in just the right amounts. Friendships change and the adolescent begins to gravitate more and more to other people who have begun to adopt the same lifestyle. Tolerance has developed, and it’s beginning to take more and more to produce the desired effect, a sense of wellness and belonging. Alcohol and other drugs are used to “escape,” and the sad truth is that the young person is not even aware of what it is that he’s escaping.
“I didn’t know I was trying to fill a void with alcohol and drugs until I was sober, and then I realized I was trying to run away and hide from myself,” Michelle says. “My drug use was like a merry go round going too fast.”
Parents can sometimes identify this phase when their child starts changing friends, giving up activities that were always important, a drop in school grades, a disinterest in family activities and other behaviors that are not appropriate. Parents who suspect a problem should seek a professional assessment. It may or may not be alcohol and other drug use, and a professional opinion will help sort it out and provide the family with options and resources for help.
Within a very short time after regular use begins, usually 4 – 6 months.
Adolescents find themselves experiencing more and more negative consequences. Before adolescents even has had an opportunity to develop, they find that they have compromised his/her integrity, principles, and morals. Shame and remorse are their constant companions.
“My dad knows I drink,” Robert said during an assessment. “He always says he’s just grateful I don’t smoke marijuana, so I’ve never told him I smoke marijuana. He knows I drive a car, too. Neither of us ever thought I would get arrested for driving under the influence. I guess we both suffer from denial. I don’t know if there will ever come a time when kids won’t experiment with alcohol and marijuana” says Robert. “I’m not sure how you prepare kids. In retrospect I wish I had been able to express my feelings and talk about the comparisons I was making between how I felt and how you looked. Who do you talk to about that stuff?”
“For a while I could out drink all the guys,” Barbara shared. “Then it seemed like I would have one drink and be doing things that I couldn’t remember, or even worse, that I would remember. I kept saying I could quit any time, but in my heart I knew I couldn’t. I knew I would die this way. I just hoped it would be soon.”
All children need healthy relationships with adults as they transfer through adolescence.
They need teachers, cheerleaders, guides, mentors, disciplinarians and role models. They need adults who can confront and support them. They need adults who can challenge them to achieve their highest good. They need adults who won’t “go away” when their feelings are hurt, when their egos are bruised or when their authority is challenged as the teenager strives for independence. Parenting today’s adolescents often requires a unique blend of trailblazing, utilization of a crystal ball, a willingness to improvise and occasionally a breathtaking leap of faith.
“Most important,” Frank said, “adults need to live the way they want their kids to live. They are our role models. We learn by what they do much more then we learn by what they say.”