- - Sunday, March 25, 2012

Culture Challenge of the Week: Teen Temptations

Parents worry. I think it’s part of our job description!

Today’s culture also generates plenty of reasons to worry, especially over the daily temptations our teens face. A weekend drive by the local strip mall, skate park or movie theater suggests that teens have little difficulty obtaining cigarettes, alcohol or drugs. I suspect that most students in any public high school could tell you in two seconds flat which students sell drugs or where to get pot or alcohol for a weekend party.

Research data support the anecdotal evidence that parents have good cause to worry. A recent survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that teen marijuana use is up for the fourth straight year and the number of daily pot smokers has hit a 30-year peak. The gateway to marijuana use often is cigarette smoking - and teens continue to smoke in spite of numerous public health messages and school-based campaigns against smoking.

The U.S. surgeon general recently issued a report showing that nearly 1 in 5 teens smokes cigarettes. Alcohol use also continues to be a problem for our nation’s children. While general levels of alcohol use have declined slightly, the percentage of teens who engage in risky binge drinking may be as high as 1 in 4.

Drug education programs and public service announcements about drug use haven’t seemed to fortify our teens against the temptation to experiment with or use tobacco, drugs or alcohol.

So it’s no surprise that parents want sound advice on how to minimize the risk that their child will smoke, drink or use illegal substances.

How to Save Your Family: Focus on Relationships

What do parents need to know? Relationships matter. Relationships with parents and friends are crucial factors in whether a teen resists or gives in to the temptations to smoke, drink or use drugs.

First, the strength of the parent-teen relationship carries significant weight. A new study in the Journal of Business Research shows that teens are less susceptible to negative peer influence, especially regarding tobacco and alcohol use, when their relationship with their parents is strong and nurturing and provides the teen with a strong sense of self.

Parents can nurture their teen’s strong sense of self by setting clear expectations, providing opportunities for the child to earn increasing independence, and projecting warmth, affirmation, love and forgiveness.

Adolescence is a bumpy road. Our teens need to know we love them, even when they take a wrong turn or lose their way. At the same time, we need to help them read the road signs clearly - some roads lead to unmistakable ruin and must be avoided at all costs.

Similarly, the friends who accompany a teen on his or her adolescent journey have the potential to influence him or her for better or worse. Not all teens are equally susceptible to peer influence. (And sometimes, peer influence can be good and helpful in keeping our teens on the right track, pointing them toward safe roads and away from deadly terrain.)

But researchers from the University of Virginia point out in an article in Child Development that teens are more likely to drink, smoke or use drugs if their friends do. And if a teen’s substance-using friend is well-liked in the wider peer group, that friend’s influence increases.

Simply being exposed to a friend’s substance use may make the teen more susceptible to imitating the friend’s patterns - even without the traditional “peer pressure.” A teen may be susceptible to substance use less because of pressure and more because of unconscious modeling - he or she simply wants to be like the popular friend. And when a teen lacks a warm relationship with his or her parents - particularly when the young person lacks maternal support - the teen is even more susceptible to negative peer influence.

Work hard at building and maintaining a strong, warm relationship with your teen. But pay particular attention to your teen’s friends - substance-using friends are a GPS pointing your teen in the wrong direction.

For practical tips on how to build the relationships necessary for healthy living, learn more about my book “30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family” at www.HowToSaveYourFamily.com and then borrow it from your local library.

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at rebecca@howtosave yourfamily.com.

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