Isn’t teen smoking, drinking and drug use just a rite of passage?

I've had a pretty phenomenal week! I have travelled across the country, given 21 talks across five schools and have met some of the most amazing young people. The last two days were particularly special. I was at two very well-known boys' schools in Brisbane and at the end of almost every session I delivered I was approached by students who wanted to thank me for the presentation but also to share that they had made the decision not to drink and that they had appreciated my message that there were a growing number of young people who had made a similar decision.

Earlier in the week I also had a Year 12 young man who came up to me, shook my hand and said the following:

"When you came and spoke to us in Year 10 and told us that you didn’t drink (and never really had through your life), it made me realize that that was an option. I had never thought it was before then. I’m now 18, three years on and I have made the choice not to drink. I just wanted to say thanks!"

As I said, I have had a phenomenal week!

This idea that is pushed by some that all teens are going to go through a stage where they are going to smoke, drink or take other drugs and that it is simply a 'rite of passage' is simply not correct. Now no-one should stick their head in the sand and pretend that there isn't a problem. When it comes to alcohol in particular – it would be true to say that most young people will experiment with it at some time during their adolescence. However, the same cannot be said for illegal drugs, particularly when we're talking about teenagers. Most young people have never tried illegal drugs, they have no interest in these substances and they never will. Study after study after study confirms this, yet try and get this fact reported in the media and you hit a brick wall.

Interestingly, you often hit that very same brick wall when you speak to the teenagers themselves.

One of the slides in my talk reveals the number of young people who have not used illicit drugs. It always raises eyebrows with many of the teenagers surprised that the number is not significantly higher. Max was a Year 11 student, 16 years of age and an outspoken critical thinker. Instead of just whispering to the person next to him about his doubts regarding the figure he stood up and argued his case.

"I find those figures very hard to believe," he said. "Everybody I know uses drugs. That slide just doesn't ring true – where did you find those people who you surveyed?"

After informing him and the rest of the group how the national survey data was collected I decided to challenge him on the statement he had made.

"So everybody you know uses drugs?" I said. "You're in a room full of over 100 of your peers – are you saying that every one of these young people in this room uses drugs?"

"No, of course not," he replied. "I don't mean people at school, I mean the people I know out of school. They all use drugs."

I then wanted to know what drugs he was talking about and he informed me that cannabis was the drug of choice for 'everybody'.

"Give me a number," I asked him. "I want an actual number of the people that you know for a fact use cannabis. You have seen these people smoke the drug, not simply heard about it, or believe it to be true – you know for a fact. Work it out and give me the number."

It took Max quite a while to respond and for a while I thought my test was going to backfire, but he was an intelligent and thoughtful young man and was taking my challenge seriously. When he finally did give his answer it confirmed my belief that although he believed a considerable proportion (well, actually all of them) smoked cannabis, this was not the case.

"Five," he said!

I love this story! I used to tell it at every school I went to and it always got a great reception. I also included it in my book. Unfortunately, there is a perception out there that, even amongst young people, that most people have used drugs. When you take a few moments to challenge that perception you can get some really interesting results. 

There are two words that I really dislike that we tend to overuse when talking about alcohol and drugs – 'all' and 'everybody'. If you just spend a couple of moments to think about it you know that statements like 'everybody does it' and 'all teenagers go through that stage' just don’t make sense. Even if everyone you knew did 'do it' when you were younger (and I don't believe that that is the case), you were most probably part of a very unusual group. 'Everybody' doesn't do it and not 'all' teenagers go through that stage – these generalizations need to be challenged and unfortunately we don't do that enough.

For some reason young people really feed into this mythology and are their own worst enemy when it comes to reinforcing stereotypes about teenagers and drug use. When I work with large groups of young people I often start off a discussion by asking them what they know about drugs and inevitably the first few statements from the floor are things such as: 
  • Drugs are everywhere
  • Everyone takes drugs
  • Peer pressure makes it really difficult for teenagers
  • Everyone I know gets drunk

It's always interesting that this is the response you get from the large group but when you break them down and start taking to smaller numbers of them, you quickly find that these sweeping generalizations simply do not hold up. Questions like 'do you or your best friend use drugs?' or 'when was the last time you saw someone use an illegal drug?' are often answered with 'no' and 'never'. Yet the people answering this way were the very same people who made these all encompassing statements just moments before.

In my experience young people often provide us with the information they think we want to hear. Now no parent will tell you that they want to hear that young people take drugs, or drink to excess – but it is what many people believe because that is what they have been fed by the media and society in general. Young people pick up on this very quickly and simply rehash these messages, even if it is not their experience. You've also got to remember that teens love drama … to be honest, so do parents! Having your child tell you that there are drugs everywhere and that there are kids at school doing this and that can send shivers down the spines of parents, but once they've been told and totally horrified, they often can't wait to share the stories with other parents who they know will be just as outraged!

Let's never forget that all young people are different. We need to acknowledge that many young people will drink alcohol at some time during their adolescence and some may experiment with one or more illegal drugs. However, that does not mean that we should throw our arms up in the air and give up. This whole – "it’s a rite of passage" thing is often just an excuse for lazy parenting … "Oh it's a stage they all go through - we all did it" is simply not true and it's actually just a huge cop-out!

As a parent you need to let your child know where you stand in regards to alcohol and drinking behaviour and the use of illegal drugs. During adolescence, young people form their opinions and values system around a whole pile of issues, including alcohol and other drugs. Letting your teenager know how you feel about sensitive topics and, most importantly, explaining your viewpoints clearly without judgment is not only going to assist them to develop positive values but also strengthen your relationship with your child.


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