We have a solid understanding of why teens try drugs. They try because of curiosity, peer pressure, rebellion, independence and boredom to name a few.
But why do teens use drugs? Why do drugs become an integral part of their life?
In working with teens, they have confirmed a couple of national statistics. The vast majority are introduced to drugs by peers, marijuana is usually the first drug used, and almost all know someone who abuses drugs regularly.
So why do teens use drugs?
Part of therapy is helping people gain insight and awareness into their behavior. Whether the behavior is healthy or unhealthy, positive or negative, I work with each person to critically think about what benefit they are receiving from the behavior. It may sound odd to consider negative behaviors as beneficial, but they are being repeated for a reason, even drug use.
I get the same answer, over and over, from teens. They use drugs because it numbs the emotional pain in their life. Drugs make problems and emotions go away. I've yet to work with a happy-go-lucky teen who uses drugs. I've yet to work with a drug-using teen who doesn't have deeper issues that have been years in the making.
My approach in therapy to helping teens understand their drug use revolves around three issues: attachment, life experiences, and coping capacity.
I'm embarrassed that I have written so little on such an important topic. Attachment is the foundation of human development. Attachment refers to the emotional bond or connection one human being has with another. This process starts at birth. When a healthy attachment is formed, the result is a person who feels safe, secure, curious, and confident.
So what does infant attachment have to do with teens and drug use? Glad you asked. Longitudinal studies have found that teens with healthy attachments are less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, excessive drinking, and drug abuse. Teens with healthy attachments feel loved, manage stress more effectively, and are less likely to be influenced to partake in negative behaviors. Teens with unhealthy attachments tend to be more anxious and withdrawn, as well as experience more trauma in their lives.
Every teen with a drug issue that I've worked with has trauma in their past. Not necessarily traditional trauma (assault, death of loved one, abuse, etc.), but attachment trauma. Amongst many, a common life theme teens report is parental conflict. “My parents don't like or have time for me,” or even “My parents hate me, they wish I was never born.” Some teens draw these conclusions on their own, but parents have said these things to their children.
I know people reading are probably mortified by these statements but it happens regularly. Be careful what you say and don't be afraid to apologize. Everyone has said something they regret. Mistakes happen but make sure you repair the damage. Teens may seem distant, insensitive and self-centered, but they are still profoundly impacted by words. So imagine having an unhealthy attachment (feeling insecure, unloved, neglected) and then add negative life experiences.
I mentioned earlier how an unhealthy attachment is marked by an inability to manage stress, feelings of worthlessness, and poor self-esteem. I am regularly surprised by how many teens have difficulty giving examples of how they positively handle life stress. Part of my work is starting with the basics of coping.
Drug use is a coping mechanism. Drug use may seem like deviant behavior, but it's more about filling a void and numbing emotions. Increasing a teens coping capacity to include positive coping skills will give the teen more confidence to lean on those positive strategies instead of holding on to drug abuse.
You may feel my approach in this post isn't harsh or critical enough toward teens and illegal behavior. I know for parents a drug-abusing teen can cause anxiety, extreme stress, and even marital discord. With that said, I believe it's time to start thinking of teen drug use as a symbol of personal struggle and inadequacy instead of rebellion and deviance.
I felt ambivalent about posting this during a holiday week when most are in a celebratory state of mind. However, if you find yourself thinking, “What went wrong with my child, friend, sibling?” or you're feeling confused on how to help, I hope this post was helpful.
Reflect on the themes of attachment, life experiences, and coping capacity of the person on your mind. Also, parents and families will have more time with their kids this time of year. It might be a great time to emotionally connect with your child to strengthen that attachment.
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Salmaan Toor is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Knoxville, TN. If you are interested in being notified of future posts, you can “like” The Family Center of Knoxville on facebook here or can follow me on Twitter here. Thanks for your support!