Double Take: Adults model bad behaviors for teens

Dear Dr. Wes and Katie: I have a question that may surprise you coming from someone who is 19. Why do teenagers like doing drugs and alcohol? I’ve tried to figure this out since I was about 13, and I still don’t get it. I’ve never seen anything good come from it. Most of my friends use. I’ve had family members with alcohol problems. So can you tell me why this is so appealing?

Katie: While adults might like to think we’re the only generation to risk life, limb and brain cell for momentary highs, adolescence has always brought an avalanche of social stress and biological confusion.

Opportunities to drink and do drugs hit us at a vulnerable stage in our lives. We’re unsure what we’ll see in the black holes that currently conceal our futures, so we either submerge ourselves in the present or try to grow up too quickly. It’s not surprising that scientific and moral reasoning often fail to compete with a teenager’s search for a place — any place — in the world.

The specter of peer influence has not disappeared. While it’s rare for a teenager to shove drugs or alcohol on a reluctant peer, some feel that if they don’t fall in with the partying trend, they’ll be left behind in the social stratosphere. Because the mind is not fully developed until adulthood, teens often have distorted perceptions of reward and penalty. Next to drug-induced highs and high school popularity, the word “responsibility” has become, to some teens, synonymous with “naivety.”

Adolescence is about more than parties and pot: It’s the transition from child to adult, when we begin to distance ourselves from our baby fat and grow toward independence. At least, we try our best. Sometimes this stage is called “rebellion.” Teens truly want to be enlightened, respected and mature — but those words are tied up with anticipation for age 21.

On TV, the Internet, in everyday conversation and sometimes at home, young adults are exposed to the idea that adulthood means bars and cold beer and liquor cabinets. Teenagers won’t take adults’ pleas to abstain seriously when their role models don’t follow their own advice. So lead by example. Teenage impulsivity won’t disappear — not with drinking, nor with dating, nor with simply growing up — but young generations won’t start to sober up until older generations take the first step with them.

Dr. Wes: Katie and I found this a surprisingly difficult question, largely because alcohol use is so commonplace now. Marijuana isn’t far behind and may in fact be in the lead among teens. While harder drugs remain a fringe element in teen culture, there’s plenty of prescription abuse going around.

But you know all that. What you really want to hear is why this is so appealing to your peers.

Katie provides a thoughtful answer, though I’ve found in the last few years a great deal more “shoving” among teens. For many, the choice to abstain now creates in their peer group something between intolerance and outright rage, and that level of pressure is harder to resist than in past generations.

Yet the real answer to your question lies in how poorly we educate kids about drugs and alcohol. We hurl a lot of propaganda at them, much of it inaccurate. As but one example, lumping marijuana in with cocaine defies logic and science, so when kids learn to distrust that comparison, they distrust everything else.

Programs like D.A.R.E., “Just Say No,” and their many permutations work just fine … with grade school kids. Fifth-graders will tell you that they always say no to drugs. But by middle school, the real offers start pouring in and all that rigid black and white runs quickly into shades of gray.

In the end, teens use drugs and alcohol because they’ve discovered few good reasons not to. As Katie notes, our society constantly reinforces the incredible joys of substance abuse and then tries to counter that with flaccid scolding. It’s like saying “Hey kids, look how unbelievably fun this is, as long as YOU don’t actually do it.”

There are a lot of good reasons — for adults as well as kids — to not use drugs and alcohol or to consume them in careful moderation. We need to start teaching those reasons at home, up close and personal, but also to remember that kids aren’t going to fully appreciate them until their mid-20s. But the research shows that what parents teach in this regard with their teens comes back to them as adults. So teach them wisely.