Sometimes as parents we’re afraid to explore difficult topics with our teens. When it comes to addiction, maybe we’d rather not talk about something that can feel scary to us- or maybe we imagine that our child isn’t at risk. However, even teens growing up in loving and supportive families can fall prey to addiction. In fact, the seeds of addiction are most frequently sewn in adolescence. Therefore, it’s more important than ever- with various forms of addiction on the rise- that we keep an ongoing discussion with our teens about their choices and behaviors.
Why are teens more vulnerable than others to addiction? According to research, during the teen years, the part of the brain that responds to reward is highly developed. Meaning- teens are primed to seek out experiences that make them feel good- however, the part of the brain that helps someone to think through their actions and to understand consequences is still underdeveloped (Mark Heid, Time Magazine). Therefore, teens will seek out experiences that provide a reward- making them vulnerable to both substance use and behavioral addictions.
In addition, vulnerability to genetic factors also plays a role in addiction. There are “genetic pathways” that influence the likelihood a teen may become addicted. Some teens are more genetically wired for risk taking and sensation seeking than others. Others have a genetic predisposition to depression and anxiety that can make them more likely to self- medicate than others. Researchers have found that 40%-60% percent of addiction tendencies are genetic. The good news is that therefore, environmental factors account for the rest- this means we as parents can try to reduce the risk factors for our children that are in their environment.
What sorts of things should we be looking out for? Your teen could be exposed to addictive substances like nicotine or marijuana through vaping. According to the American Lung Association, 23.6% of high school students use at least one tobacco product- including e-cigarettes. In 2020, rates of e-cigarette use rose dramatically- 1000% among teens (from 2.4% to 26%) and for middle schoolers (from 3% to 26.5%)!
Many teens don’t understand the dangers of vaping. They see it as safe, and many vaping products are flavored- making them more attractive to kids. Research is showing that vaping is at least as addictive as cigarettes and also poses significant health risks. Teens become easily addicted and can often easily conceal their use of vapes. It’s important to talk to your teen about vaping and explain how dangerous and addictive vaping is.
When speaking to your teen, try to remain calm, open minded and non judgemental. If your teen has been vaping regularly or only tried it a few times- create a safe environment for them to be honest with you- let them know you won’t be angry and want to help. If your child is involved with vaping it’s important to seek help to break your child’s addiction.
Vaping is not the only substance or addictive behavior our child can become involved with. Alcohol consumption is also of concern and puts your child at risk for negative health and social consequences. Remember your child is watching- and if you drink, try to role model moderation. Talk openly about alcohol with your teen and make sure they know they can always call you if they are in a situation that may be dangerous involving alcohol or other substances- your teen should know it is better to call you for help than to place themselves in situations that can cause harm. If your teen is at a party for example, and afraid to drive with a friend who is drinking, or if they themselves have had too much to drink- let them know you will be calm and not angry. You will talk about what’s happened, but you would rather be there for them than risk serious consequences because they were afraid to reach out to you.
Minimize your teen’s access to alcohol and any painkillers in your home. Opioid painkillers can become easily abused and lead your child down an extremely dangerous path. Monitor where painkillers or alcohol are stored in your home, so you can keep track of anything that goes missing; if necessary, lock away things that could be dangerous to your child.
While substances are of concern- pay attention to other forms of addiction your child may experience-many of which can also cause your child emotional harm. Some kids can display addictive behaviors to video games and social media. Monitor how frequently your child engages in these activities. Social media has been shown to often have a negative affect on people in general, but teens especially. Does your child’s mood seem to be guided by their social media? Do they seem more anxious and depressed because of social media? Are they preoccupied with likes and posting constantly? How does your teen react when separated from a device?
Does your child’s use of video games interfere with his or her daily functioning? Have your child’s grades or friendships suffered because of how often and intensely they play video games? Do video games keep your teen up late most nights and deter them from getting outside or hanging with friends in person? All of these can be signs your child is developing an unhealthy relationship with gaming. Limit time spent on video games and help your child to develop replacement behaviors- what else does your child enjoy? What can they do instead of checking social media or playing video games?
Observe your child’s behavior for things that concern you- changes in our child’s emotional state, motivation and interests in other things can all be signs of addiction developing. Check in frequently with your teen. He or she may not respond or even seem interested, but they do hear you! Arm your child with knowledge and your love, and seek help for your child if needed.