Health & Safety

Reality check: Drugs and alcohol

A high school panel offers present-day perspectives

By Robin Noble

My daughter’s high school produces a series of talks for parents called Reality Check. The format of these sessions is simple: Parents sit down with a panel of experts who discuss issues like drugs, unhealthy relationships, digital dangers and eating disorders.

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I recently attended a Reality Check session on substance abuse, expecting the same litany of statistics and advice we’ve heard since the days of Just Say No and This is your brain on drugs.

Well that was then and this is now. This session included much more current, close-to-home information that is likely of value to all parents of high school and college students.

A quick note on the panel: it included school administrators, a health teacher, the school psychologist, an outside mental health counselor, the district attorney’s deputy prosecutor for juvenile offenders, and a city police officer. There were many viewpoints pinging around the room, but the diversity of perspective brought credibility to the discussion.

The panel’s main feat was to take parents’ notions of drug and alcohol abuse – issues that may feel far away – and bring them home in the context of our community and our kids. Here are my top take aways, with relevant quotes from the panel:

Don’t be surprised when issues arise.

Every school contends with drug and alcohol abuse. Rich, poor, private, public, prominent or obscure, it doesn’t matter. Drugs and alcohol will likely impact your student whether she uses them or not.

Don’t waste precious time coming to terms with issues when they come up. That delays your ability to deal with them.

Much better to be matter-of-fact and accept that drugs and drinking can catch up with any of our kids. Intervening early is key to heading off bigger problems.

Not everyone is doing it.

The National Youth Risk Behavior Survey echoes our own local survey on risky behaviors when it comes to marijuana use: about 40% of students in 9th – 12th grade have tried it; about 23% use it regularly. While these stats are alarming, the panel wanted to emphasize that about 60% of students are choosing not to use marijuana. 

When your student feels like an outsider because she’s not smoking pot, it’s important to point out that she’s actually in the majority.

Cultural and media influences can make kids feel like everyone is partaking with no apparent problems. It may annoy your student to death, but go ahead and point out the lack of reality in these representations.

Alcohol continues to challenge.

The National Youth Risk Survey shows that nearly 70% of students in 9th – 12th grade have tried alcohol and about 35% drink regularly. Again, that’s not everyone, but the panel stressed that parents should be acutely aware of the pervasiveness of alcohol use and keep the conversation going with their students. The panel reported seeing more dangerous impacts of alcohol at after-hours functions like dances and athletic events when they can’t control how students get home.

Most parents drink alcohol. Your job is to model responsible behavior.

Parents need to maintain a zero-tolerance policy for driving or riding under the influence. That means students need a transportation plan when they go out. So what’s the plan? Is it Uber, a taxi, a call home?

It’s perplexing to all of us when parents allow their kids to hire a ‘party bus’ for events like dances. Yes, it keeps them off the road, but it’s also a venue for them to do what they shouldn’t be doing. The bar should be higher.

Marijuana edibles are uncharted territory.

Panel members themselves seemed alarmed by recent student overdoses involving marijuana-laced gummy bears and chocolate bars. The consensus: when it comes to edibles, students don’t have a clue. Here in Colorado where recreational pot is legal to buy but illegal to smoke anywhere other than private residences, edible marijuana is a major growth industry, and it almost feels targeted toward the younger set. Candy, cookies and brownies seem harmless to students. Moreover, it takes much longer to feel the effects of marijuana when it’s eaten. Younger people lack patience. They assume it’s not working and eat much more than they should. Too much marijuana is not necessarily toxic to the body, but decision making in overdose mode can be dangerous.

Before they know it they have overdosed and are panicking. If they aren’t in a safe place, if everyone around them is high, things can get out of hand.

Have a conversation about edibles now. The message: proceed with extreme caution.

Prescription medication abuse can lead to heroin experimentation.

The panel discussed the growing problem of over-the-counter and prescription medication abuse. They reported seeing incidences of students getting high with cough and cold remedies, medicines used to treat ADHD, and opioid pain killers like Oxycodone. In the case of opioids, which are physically addictive, some users eventually turn to heroin because it is less expensive. The panel also talked about seeing the rise of synthetic drugs like “Bath Salts” and cannabinoids like “K2” and “Spice,” which are trotted out as safe but can cause side effects like vomiting, agitation, hallucinations, paranoia and reduced blood supply to the heart. The panel recommended parents stay up to date on emerging street drugs with the National Institute of Drug Abuse’s Commonly Used Drug Charts.

The main thing parents can do is to keep very tight control over medications around the house.

Did your child just have her wisdom teeth removed? Those leftover pain killers are worth a lot of money. If you’re not paying attention, they can get out of your house and into the wrong hands.

Tune in to behavior changes.

Parents may not be able to get a straight answer from a student who is experimenting with drugs, never mind one who is getting in over her head. It’s important to be aware of significant behavior changes that might indicate trouble or addiction: sleeplessness, depression, extreme isolation, a drop in grades, major changes in friends, weight loss, major skin problems. When parents sense shifts such as these, it’s time to intervene and possibly seek additional help.

Your school psychologist, interventionist and others are here to help. Don’t wait.

Even “minor” mistakes can impact college admission.

Colleges and universities, most of which are constantly battling the downsides of drinking on their own campuses, are generally unsympathetic to applicants with minor-in-possession convictions. Having an MIP can be reason for immediate veto especially at private and competitive schools. Discuss this harsh reality with your student; it shouldn’t take her by surprise.

We’ve seen seniors have their acceptances revoked because they were arrested for drinking on prom night. It can be life changing.

Parents are still their student’s most powerful ally.

Every single exchange, question or idea shared throughout this panel kept coming back to the power of the parent, and the importance of talking with our kids. The psychologists were quick to point out that some students’ problems are not solvable through the parent relationship, specifically those suffering from significant trauma or mental health issues. But for most typical kids, open dialogue and creative problem solving are two of the best things parents can do.

Be your child’s out. If they need to blame you to get out from under peer pressure, let them know you’re happy to be the bad guy.

There is nothing like the confidence of kids who have a great relationship with their parents. But even the strongest kids will still make mistakes.  

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s new High School Parent eNews and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for a preview of what’s ahead. You can also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow High School parents by joining our High School Parent Facebook group.

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