HAMSA Educates Parents on Teen Substance Abuse and Mental Health

April 25, 2022

HAMSA Educates Parents on Teen Substance Abuse and Mental Health

Earlier this month, Joel Dworkin (HAMSA Program Manager) was invited to speak to parents at The Weber School about drugs and alcohol, and he invited Cari Newman (Parent Coach) to join him. Joel and Cari have the same mission: encourage parents to normalize having healthy discussions with their kids about substance use and mental health.

When initially asked what the discussion would entail, Joel shared, “This is an intro to what teen substance use and mental health looks like right now…and techniques for having conversations about it. We’ll cover the spectrum of substance use, from experimenting to already using.”

Upon arrival, The Weber School provided dinner and an opportunity for parents to socialize before the initial presentation. After dinner, the attendees gathered in a semi-circle in front of Joel and Cari, allowing everyone to feel part of the discussion. Among sharing facts and figures, Joel shared his personal experience with addiction and recovery, and educated parents about the progression of teen substance use and abuse.

Tackling the Problem Head On

As Joel shared, “It’s important to make sure that the talks people have with their kids align with their values and own actions. There can’t be hypocrisy. There must be consistency.”

Further, he brought up harm reduction and risk management. Joel continued, “Don’t get in the car with someone drunk, surround yourself with people who care about you and others, don’t leave your drink unattended…If you tell your kid to be responsible, give them examples of how to do that, rather than telling them what not to do.” Both Joel and Cari are very passionate about inspiring parents helping their teens make their own responsible decisions.

Cari stated, “Not talking about it does not make it go away. Parents are actually doing their children a disservice by avoiding the topics of drugs and alcohol…I’m here to help parents figure out their boundaries and define their terms and conditions.”

Some examples of questions a parent can ask themselves:

Are you ok with your kid drinking at a friend’s house?
Are you ok with your kid going to a house party?
What about a party where you don’t know the host?
Where is your “line”?
What does “make good choices” mean to you?

Creating an Open Dialogue

Parents tend to have top-down approach, and as a result, the teenagers end up shutting down. Cari shared examples of how to listen and create an ongoing dialogue, encouraging parents to remove judgement. She and Joel recommend normalizing these conversations so that when a child gets into a situation, he or she feels comfortable talking to their parents. The goal for parents is to become and remain approachable, instead of making their child feel afraid to talk to them.

During the Q&A portion of the evening, some of the Weber parents expressed concern about drugs and alcohol use after school dances or at house parties. Cari suggested a few methods for teens to remove themselves from an uncomfortable scenario with drugs or alcohol, even if it means having to lie.

Some examples of “acceptable lies” include:

“No thanks, I’m already so high.”
“My mom said I’ll lose the car if I get high again.”
“I’ll lose my summer trip if I do this.”

Cari also reminded parents of the often-overlooked option to simply leave the room. Teens do not always need to have an excuse available.

Teen don’t always try drugs or alcohol because of peer pressure; more often, it’s because they want to feel included. They often feel uncomfortable and insecure, and are embarking on a seemingly endless quest to develop their own sense of self. Engaging in substance use can create the illusion of identity and/or belonging.

Building Trust

Another pertinent message emphasized was to allow teens to use their parents as an excuse.

What does that mean, exactly? Cari gave an example, ”You can give your kids blanket permission to make yourself the bad guy…or to have a signal, like an emoji or code word. An example would be a kid texting a chocolate chip cookie emoji. Mom now knows to call and say, ‘hey your aunt is in the hospital, I have to get you immediately.’ This gives teenagers an easy excuse to leave.”

It's imperative to build trust so the teen knows that the parent won’t shut them down. Creating a connection, rather than an argument or roadblock, is essential.

Cari continued, “If a teenager asks for a ride, just go get them, and don’t yell/judge/demand info right away. Let them know that they won’t be in trouble, and you can talk about it later once there’s time to digest what happened.”

Preventative Measures

While everyone is different, listed below are some protective factors that can decrease the probability of a teenager finding themselves looking for an escape through drugs or alcohol:

- Organized sports or activities
- Time spent with parents
- Feeling cared about in school by faculty
- Early and reasonable curfew
- Regular exercise
- Time spent outdoors
- Getting enough sleep

The Weber School has invited Joel and Cari to continue these valuable conversations. Joel said, “This is the beginning of a new relationship with JF&CS Atlanta and Weber. We look forward to continuing to lead discussions about substance use, mental health, and other teen issues that affect families.”

For more resources about substance use or abuse, please visit hamsahelps.org or call 1-833-HAMSA-HELPS.

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