Living Columns & Blogs

What parents need to know about talking to their kids about drugs and alcohol

According to the most recent (2017) Pennsylvania Youth Survey, taken by youth across the Commonwealth, approximately 65 percent of Centre County sixth- through twelfth-graders do not think people risk harming themselves by smoking marijuana once or twice a week and half our youth believe the same to be true about regular marijuana use. Coupled with is the fact that Perceived Risk of Drug Use is the top risk factor for youth in our county. When kids believe that nothing bad will happen to them if they use drugs or alcohol, they are more likely to do so.

Use of vaping devices is on the rise among youth, and just as they believe marijuana is not harmful, kids also believe that vaping is safe. Youth are vaping nicotine, THC or flavors. Vaping devices are small and can resemble a pen, thus youth can use them discretely, sometimes right in the classroom. One device, the Juul, has USB pods that contain the vaping substance. Students are able to charge them in their computers, and parents never notice the difference.

There are several problems with thinking that using these substances are not harmful. First, today’s marijuana is nothing like the marijuana of the previous decades. Marijuana used today is much more potent. And for vaping, this practice is so new that we don’t yet know all the associated risks. Even if youth are only vaping flavors and not nicotine, they are still heating up chemicals and putting them into their bodies.

But much more importantly, research indicates that 90 percent of addiction starts in the teen years. People who began using addictive substances before age 15 are nearly seven times likelier to develop a substance use problem than those who delay first use until age 21 or older. Each year that substance use is delayed during the period of adolescent brain development, the risk of addiction and substance abuse decreases.

While alcohol, marijuana and nicotine use may seem harmless, these gateway drugs can lead to the use of more dangerous drugs and addiction, especially when combined with other risk factors such as family conflict, mental health problems, or internal or genetic characteristics. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 13 percent of those with a substance use disorder began using marijuana by the time they were 14, and likewise, 15 percent of people who start drinking by age 14 eventually develop alcohol abuse or dependence, compared to 2 percent of those who wait until they are 21 or older.

What can parents do? Join us on Oct. 16th at State College High School, at 7 p.m. for our Straight Talk session, Drugs and Alcohol: What’s Out There and What You Can Do About It. This presentation will educate about drugs and alcohol, focusing on prevention and tips for parents. We will talk about what works and what doesn’t work in prevention, including discussions of trends and the path to addiction, as well as tips for talking with kids.

Denise Herr McCann is the associate director of Centre County Youth Service Bureau.