Nov 20 / Simcha

Teens & Drugs: What’s a Parent to Do? (Part 2 – M. Rosenbaum)

I have introduced Marsha Rosenbaum’s reality-based approach to teen drug use in an earlier posting.  In the following selection from the same booklet, Safety First, published by the Drug Policy Alliance under her leadership, Rosenbaum suggests that while there are no easy answers for parents concerned with their teens’ safety and well-being, she can suggest a few guidelines.


Step 1:  Listen

The first step is to “get real” about drug use by listening to what teens have to tell us about their lives and their feelings. This will guide us toward intelligent, thoughtful action.

A useful venue is the dinner table. As much as possible, families should eat together once a day so they can “catch up,” talk and otherwise connect.  There are many other natural openings for conversation, such as drug use in movies, television and music. If we can remain as non-judgmental as possible, teenagers will seek our opinions and guidance. Let them know they can talk freely.

Our greatest challenge is to listen and try to help without excessive admonishment. If we become indignant and punitive, teenagers will stop talking to us. It’s that simple.

Remember that advice is most likely to be heard when it is requested. Realize that teens bring their own experiences to the table, some of which you may not want to hear.  Breathe deeply and be grateful when they share these experiences because this means you have established trust.


Step 2:  Learn

Parents and teachers need to take responsibility for learning about the physiological, psychological and sociological effects of alcohol and other drugs. This involves reading and asking questions.

Familiarize yourself with teenage culture through print and electronic media, especially the Internet. Watch MTV. Learn about the array of drugs available to young people, but be sure your sources are scientifically grounded and balanced. Any source that fails to describe both risks and benefits should be considered suspect.

Resources for you and your teen:

  • The Drug Policy Alliance website contains balanced information with facts about the effects of today’s most prevalent drugs.
  • From Chocolate to Morphine: Everything You Need to Know about Mind-Altering Drugs, by renowned health expert, Andrew Weil, MD, and former high school teacher,  Winifred Rosen (Boston: Houghton- Mifflin, 2004).
  • Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence by Mitch Earleywine, PhD (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)
  • Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts: A Review of the Scientific Evidence by Lynn Zimmer, PhD and John P. Morgan, MD (New York: The Lindesmith Center, 1997).


Step 3:  Act

Drug abuse prevention is not a curriculum package or a “magic bullet,” so make some plans.

It is important to keep teens engaged and busy, not just during the school day, but from 3 to 6 p.m., when the use of drugs by bored, unsupervised teens is highest. Extracurricular programs such as sports, arts, drama and other creative activities should be available to all secondary school students, at low or no cost to parents. Become an advocate for such programs in your community and teens’ school.

A trusting, open, caring relationship with a parent or other respected adult can be the most powerful element in deterring and countering abusive patterns. And trust, once lost, can be hard to regain. Focus on an open exchange of information. There are no easy answers, just thoughtful conversations; teens respond much better to such conversations than to one-sided lectures.

Teenagers need to know that the important adults in their lives are concerned primarily with their safety; that they have someone to turn to when they need help. If they find themselves in a compromising or uncomfortable situation, they need to know we will come to their aid immediately.


Step 4:  Lead

PTA leaders and other parent groups often request “Safety First” speakers for their meetings.

Training resources and information about such workshops (such as our DVD, Safety First: The Workshop) are available at

I understand that it is difficult to get parents to come out for evening meetings, but one parent at a middle school in Torrance, California had a brilliant idea. She was so committed to the importance of parent drug education that she convinced sev- eral teachers to offer extra credit to students whose parents attended the workshop. A record 272 parents packed the auditorium that night!

In general, it is important for parents to get to know each other and work together to promote safety- oriented strategies. The emphasis on safety does not mean we are giving teens permission to use drugs. It simply affirms that their welfare is our top priority.


Step 5:  Help

It is important to know what to do if you believe a teenager (or anyone else) is having a negative reaction to alcohol and/or other drugs.

For instance, do not allow a person who has consumed too much alcohol and is passed-out to lay on their back. Many people in this situation have choked on their own vomit and asphyxiated.

In an acute situation, if you fear something is seriously wrong – such as when a person is unconscious or having trouble breathing – do not hesitate to phone 911 immediately. The lives of many young people could have been saved if paramedics had been called – or called sooner.

I highly recommend the following resources:

  • Addiction Proof Your Child. the work of psychologist Stanton Peele, PhD, who lays out criteria for deciding whether your child needs treatment, the treatment options and your role as a parent.
  • Marijuana: What’s a Parent to Believe?  by Timmen Cermak, for parents concerned that their teen may have a marijuana problem.
  •  Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids by journalist Maia Szalavitzboot who has studied camp-style programs that can do more harm than good.


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See Part 1:  Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teen Drug Use