Staying Connected with Your Teen and Communicating about Substances
We request that all Upper School parents read this article and then complete the survey that is linked here.
When we meet people and they find out that we are high school educators, they will sometimes ask about today’s youth and substance use. “Is it still a problem?” they want to know. Our response is always the same. We sigh and simply say “Yes.” While it is difficult to get a detailed picture of an activity that is essentially secretive, any high school administrator in America who has any awareness and is being honest will say the same.
How could we not? The vast majority of America’s youth are either at-risk now or will be. A fundamental reason why is that American culture is awash in messages to use drugs. Advertisements encourage viewers to “Call your Doctor” for a pharmaceutical remedy to every ailment, athletic heroes turn to drugs to enhance performance or simply to get back into the game, and ever prevalent beer commercials run throughout every sports broadcast. Moreover, the risk of use to youth is made greater because the consequences may well be severe, such as physical or emotional harm in the short term or possible addiction and irreversible brain damage in the long term. More subtly, substance use hijacks the brain’s natural reward system, deflates motivation, and limits achievement.
At the same time it tempts them to take these shortcuts, modern culture has made youth particularly vulnerable to substance use by marginalizing them. The teen brain is primed for connection and purpose, yet our culture gives them few substantive roles to play. We need their input and capacity to seek novel solutions to the very problems they are inheriting from us yet rarely ask for their input in meaningful ways. Thus, even high achieving students in this system are vulnerable to disengagement or feeling an emptiness inside which they are sometimes tempted to fill with drugs. In addition, the cycle of procuring, using, and talking about using drugs further isolates youth by dividing users from their non-using peers and from important adults, including parents and teachers. At a school such as Waynflete, which holds building high quality, trusting relationships between adults and youth as a core value, this cycle of use frays the fabric of our community.
Thus, we seek to prevent substance use among our students in myriad ways. Anyone who has heard Lowell address the student body before Outdoor Experience on the subject of substance use knows that we communicate our expectations and the consequences for violating them very clearly and directly. But while rules and consequences are important components of an effective prevention strategy, they are not nearly sufficient to overcome the powerful lure to use as described above. The key to doing so, in the words of Waynflete’s mission, is “to guide (our students) toward self-governance and self-knowledge and to encourage their responsible and caring participation in the world.” In so doing, we help the young people in our charge to fill the void created by their marginalized status while strengthening their capacities to make healthy choices for themselves. In a real sense, the entire Upper School experience serves as a prevention program in that each interaction and every component is intended to cultivate in our students a sense of meaning, purpose, and agency. Furthermore, the emphasis on values and interpersonal skills in ninth grade seminar and throughout the advising curriculum provide our students with a place to get information about substances and the effects of using them. Because we view students as the primary architects of their own lives, we help them to reflect on and improve their decision making skills.
We also know that parents have the greatest influence on all aspects of the lives of their children, including around decisions relating to the use of alcohol and other drugs. For that reason, every year we seek to engage the parent body with this topic. A few weeks ago, on the eve of Portland’s overwhelming vote to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, we held a program for parents entitled “Communicating with Your Teen about Substances: An Evening with Geno Ring.” Geno has presented to Waynflete parents on multiple occasions. A licensed substance abuse counselor, he has an uncanny ability to connect with young people as a therapist, consultant, father, and life coach. His own story of recovery is one of reconnecting with a deep sense of purpose and meaningful work.
At the recent Waynflete event, Geno told his story to set the stage for the two people speaking with him – a young woman from Hyde and another from Bowdoin – who both shared compelling narratives of the impact of substances on their lives and the supportive role their parents continue to play as they recover. Despite differences in circumstances, their stories had much in common. Both young women spoke of social anxiety and lack of confidence in staying true to their own deeply held values that might have protected them from using had they sought more support from trusted adults early on. Both cited the prevalence of alcohol use as a cultural norm that buffered them from seeing their own use as problematic until well after it clearly was even to their friends. Perhaps most compelling was the insight by one presenter that though she started drinking to fit in and connect with people, her use had precisely the opposite effect. Even during her highest usage when she was at the center of multiple parties, she felt utterly alone and disconnected from anything and anyone.
The presenters also reported that even after finally seeking and getting help they were haunted by traumatic memories of drug abuse and unwanted sexual experiences that too often result from heavy use of substances. Both girls said they have had to work hard to recognize and tolerate and seek positive alternatives to the varying degrees of painful memories and boredom that typically accompany recovery since they no longer use substances to mask those states. Their dramatic descent into such self-destructive behavior and despair and then the arduous work of recovery raised the question of what these young women, their peers, their school, and their parents might have done earlier to prevent such a painful episode. The evening concluded with questions for the panelists and dialogue about how important it is to keep relationships with those close to us real and authentic rather than succombing to seeking an image of what we think others want us to be. At the moment, both young women are pursuing college and have reignited a desire to shape their futures through actively engaging their passions and interests.
The evening underscored the critical role we as teachers and parents can play in cultivating the capacity of each of our young people to realize a life of meaningful work and play. “Teens have to learn how to be interesting and interested to keep themselves entertained and engaged without substances,” Geno noted, “so we need to give them plenty of opportunities to get that way. If you want to get to know your child, set the alarm for 11:00 p.m., get out of bed, and go watch YouTube with them – you’ll see what they think is funny and find out what they like. Ask them what they are thinking and then listen.”
By engaging your children in such ways, you may or may not get a laugh, but you will learn something about them. And most importantly, you may find that you are present for them, just when they need you most.
Please complete the parent survey linked here.