It’s every parent’s nightmare to find out their teenager is hooked on drugs or alcohol.
There is some good news. In America, teen addiction rates have dropped significantly since their peak in the 1990s.
But there’s still cause for concern. A survey conducted in 2018 found that nearly 30% of American 8th to 12th graders have at least tried an illicit drug.
Other studies have found nearly 20% of the same age group drank alcohol in the past 30 days. 12% reported regular binge drinking.
Unfortunately, there’s only so much a parent can do. Teenagers spend the majority of their time at school. So, it’s important for teachers to take control and play a role in addiction prevention.
A good teacher can nip underage addiction in the bud before it turns into a problem that’s much, much harder to handle.
Keep reading to learn more about how educators can help prevent and treat teenage addiction.
Understand the Consequences
First and foremost, it’s important to come to the table equipped with the right knowledge. As a teacher, you may or may not have had your own experiences with drugs or alcohol, but coming from a place of empathy is important.
You don’t have to share your own experiences with drugs or alcohol to show empathy, but make sure you are deeply aware of the consequences before you approach the subject with your students.
Many teens turn to drugs or alcohol as an escape mechanism. It’s not easy being a teenager. Hormones, peer pressure, family issues, mental health issues, curiosity… there are a plethora of reasons teens experiment with drugs.
Clearly communicating the many harmful consequences that can come from early drug and alcohol abuse can give you a leg up.
Instead of using general, blanket statements, approach the topic using specific details. Just saying “drugs are bad” won’t help. Why are drugs bad?
- Drug and alcohol abuse increases levels of depression and anxiety in the long term.
- Using illicit drugs or binge drinking from a young age has a serious impact on brain development.
- Drugs change your personality for the worst. This can lead to damaged relationships with your family and friends.
- Regular drug and alcohol use is detrimental to your health. It’s even worse for your skin.
- While you might feel better about yourself temporarily when using drugs, over the long term your self-esteem will suffer.
- If you become reliant on alcohol or drugs to socialize, you’ll have trouble making friends when you’re sober. This can lead to isolation.
- Drugs are illegal. If you get caught with them you could end up in juvenile detention or even jail.
These are just a handful of the many harmful consequences that come with using drugs and alcohol from a young age. Make your comments situation-specific.
If you know a student struggles with depression and is using alcohol as a coping mechanism, tell them that alcohol is actually a depressant. Drinking makes depression worse. Not better.
Know the Signs
Understanding the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse is all well and good but in order to effectively prevent underage addiction, it’s important to be aware of the indicators.
Most teenagers act differently when they know they’re being watched or supervised by an adult. Take the time to get to know your students; then you’ll be able to notice changes.
Like all ailments, prevention is much easier than treatment. Catching on early can help steer a teenager away from a dangerous path.
Things to watch out for:
- An abrupt change in friendship circles. Peer influence is a huge reason teenagers use drugs. If you notice your student has fallen in with a “bad crowd”, it could be cause for concern.
- A sudden change in behavior. This could be a previously well-mannered student suddenly acting in a disrespectful manner toward staff, other students or rules.
- A fall in academic performance. Failing grades are often a good indicator that something is going on. It might not be drug or alcohol use, but it’s certainly reason for a conversation.
- Irritability or moodiness. Of course, moodiness is common in teenagers – the hormones of adolescence are real. But keep an eye out for aggravated tempers or knee-jerk defensiveness.
- Physical signs like bloodshot eyes, memory loss, or lack of coordination.
Communication is Key
More than anything, teenagers want to feel heard. Many teens think adults are working against them.
If you provide an open, honest outlet of communication with your students, trust will build and they will eventually open up to you.
Ask questions. Don’t dwell on the negative. If they show an interest in a certain subject in school, elaborate on it. If they have a natural inclination toward a certain area of study, offer them extra coursework.
It might seem like the last thing a teenager wants is more schoolwork. But actually, teens who are engaged and challenged in their learning are much less likely to turn to drugs and alcohol.
For older students, if they can clearly see a path to success or even a university scholarship in their future, they’ll think twice before throwing it all away.
It’s not easy to get an angsty teenager to open up. But once they do, it means they trust you. Don’t break their trust by betraying what they tell you in confidence.
Unless they speak of a threat to their life or the life of someone else, keep everything they say between the two of you.
If you gossip with your colleagues or immediately go to their parents with the information you’ve gleaned, they’ll never trust you again.
Teachers have a unique opportunity to create real, inspiring relationships with students. If you want to take it one step further, become a certified drug and alcohol abuse counselor.
Don’t Play the Blame Game
The easy route when dealing with an addict is to blame them. It’s their bad choices that have led them to where they are. If they would have only made better choices.
Well, hindsight is 20/20.
It’s important to understand that addiction is a medical condition. Sure, a series of choices is often what leads people down the path of addiction, but it’s not their fault.
We are a product of our environment. A teenager who comes from a broken home, who has learning difficulties or trouble fitting in with their peers is much more susceptible to the trappings of drugs and alcohol.
Create a safe place for your students. If you have a reputation for being open and non-judgmental, your students will be far more likely to come to you for help or guidance.
The more you understand about mental health, the better. You don’t have to be a psychologist, but attending some extra courses focusing on mental health can give you a better insight into the complicated mind of a teenager.
Make it Fun
Incorporating drug and alcohol awareness programs from a young age another key to success. Regardless of the age of your students, try approaching the subject of addiction using engaging activities.
Try doing role-playing exercises and skits. A great exercise is to have your students each pick a different substance, research it and create a “Facts About [Insert Subtance]” poster and present it to the class.
Another great way to incite and enforce positivity is to have your students make a list of what’s important to them now and what they want in the future. Dream boards are a great way to do this.
Then, have them consider the ways drugs and alcohol might interfere with their life goals. This will enable them to think about the big picture and they might think twice the next time they’re offered a drink.
Give your students the chance to be role models, even to themselves. Use any of the above-mentioned exercises or create your own, and have them visit younger classrooms or elementary schools to do a presentation.
Think about the “big brother/big sister” program. Pair your teenager up with an elementary student and have them be each other’s support system.
The younger student will benefit from having someone to look up to, and the older student will feel responsible and inspired.
Start Addiction Prevention Now Before It’s Too Late
Now that you’re equipped with some tools and strategies, you can return to your students with an open mind and an open heart.
Be patient. Be kind. Be open-minded. Set your students up for success. Addiction prevention is much easier than addiction treatment.
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