A Disturbing Conversation with my 14 Year Old Son…

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This is a kid who painfully and with a tremendous amount of sadness watched for years as his mom suffered/suffers from a major substance use problem, whose father was hospitalized for an eating disorder when he was a teen and whose step mother is arguably one of the nation’s most well respected psychiatrists in the field of treating substance abuse and eating disorders. This is a kid who has spent countless hours talking with his dad (and his step mom) about why he needs to be very careful with the choices he makes given his specific genetic predispositions for addiction as well as his the environmental and social factors he is faced with as he grows up on the Northshore of Chicago, a relatively affluent part of the city where much of the culture is ok with “some” use (of illegal and illicit substances) amongst teens so long as it is not “excessive”…  Nearly every member on his maternal side of the family has a substance abuse and or fairly significant mental health issue and many on his paternal side have much of the same.  He himself already shows signs of obsessive thinking and addictive behavior with relatively harmless behaviors such as his phone use, girls and food.

Four years ago before we moved out of the city this kid swore up and down, left and right that never would he even be interested in trying “drugs or alcohol”.  He watched as his mom would simply not show up for visitation and would then disappear for days with no contact, he would get in to the car as it wreaked of booze and cigarettes, he was the victim of wild mood swings that we would later attribute most likely to substance use (or withdrawal).  He was vocally angry and disgusted.  He understood.  We talked about it.  There is no doubt that this kid knows first-hand just how powerful these substances can be, how addiction can take over and ruin one’s life as they may know it today and that he needs to be very careful about the choices he makes as he enters that period in life where this stuff is going to be available almost everywhere he turns.

AND YET, the conversation last night was around how “most parents” of his peers don’t have a problem with their kid (he’s 14!) drinking a little or experimenting with what they now call “weed”, and that his step mom and I are anti-drug “Nazis” because of our zero tolerance policy around using anything that is considered illegal or illicit.  He now seems utterly shocked that we would expect him to abstain from alcohol until at least the age of 21, and he was just letting me know that it was “kind of a bummer” that he and I would not be able to have a “beer” together because he would not feel comfortable drinking around me knowing how I feel and what our rules are.  He says we are the only ones who actually call other parents on a Friday or Saturday night before we let him go out to make sure they will be home and that they know our boy is headed over there, and he can’t stand it.  He says his friends and even some of the parents think we are nuts.  I believe some of this, as a few times the parents have outright lied to us.  And many times the kids try to lie, but we catch that before it goes too far.

It was like talking to an alien last night!  This was not my kid from just a few years ago who sat with me crying in front of our house when he was 8 waiting for his mom to never show up because she was out all night getting completely wasted.  This is not the kid who I have spent countless hours talking to about him and what he needs to be careful with, because of who he is and where he comes from.  This is not the kid who was disgusted by even the thought of drinking and smoking, just a few short years ago!   I attribute some of these dramatic changes in him to being a teenager and a lot of it to living in a culture where there is in fact an implicit message being sent by many parents that “some” use is acceptable, that “weed” isn’t that bad and that if the kids are going to drink then they should stay at home and drink as opposed to going out…  Kids pick up on this, they use it to their advantage and they run with it.  It’s a terrible message and it has got to stop.

I recall last October picking up my daughter at a party (she was a sophomore then) and not only were many of the kids drinking but the mom approached me in the parking lot defensively and completely wasted.  This was the same mom we had called earlier in the evening to first ensure that they (the parents) were going to be home and second that the Halloween party was going to be supervised and drug and alcohol free.  Clearly she lied.  Why wouldn’t these kids feel free to get wasted with her???

My son tells me there is drinking going on at nearly every party every weekend amongst his peer group.  When I ask where the parents are, I am told they are “out”.  Several times my kid has tried to get over to one of these parties yet if the parents won’t confirm they will be home, he doesn’t get to go.  Do the parents really not know this is happening in their home?????   I find this nearly impossible to believe.

I have tried on several occasions to talk with fellow parents whose kids are friends with mine and who are apparently using, in an effort to possibly work together to talk with our kids together.  It is all denial.   Nobody wants to believe their kid is using and even if they believe it, so long as it’s not that bad, it’s not a problem….

I will leave the data and the statistics to another day (and to my wife) but I think we all know very few who ultimately die of an overdose of an opiate do so without first trying and starting with alcohol or “weed”.  Addiction is a progressive disease.  Some of it is genetic/biological and some of it is environmental.  When one is genetically predisposed to addiction, the family and that individual have to be extra cautious.  Yet when living in a culture where society condones the use of some substances, I can speak from personal experience that the battle can start to feel completely futile.  How can I as a parent of my 14 year old, knowing what I know and having seen what I have seen, compete with my parenting standards against what my boy sees and lives the 10 or so hours a day that he is out of the house.  I cannot.  I need help.  We all need to help one another with this epidemic because if we think it’s going away or that it won’t affect nor touch us for whatever reason, we are wrong.

Allowing a 14 or 15 or even 16 year old to think that some moderate use of alcohol or “weed” is somehow ok (because it is not excessive or because it is not something worse like cocaine or heroin) is categorically and unequivocally wrong, and it is the wrong message to send to our kids.  The data and all of the literature supports this.  Trust me.   Throwing a party until 2 am (even if it is a Bar Mitzvah!) and allowing our 13 year olds to watch as most of the adults up that late get completely smashed is just plain bad for our kids.  Throwing a party in one’s basement so that their kid doesn’t have to drive to another basement to drink or use drugs is terrible.  Why would anyone think that is a good idea?  If a parent knows the kid is using and spending time with others who are using, put an end to it.

Having watched my son take such a dramatic turn in the last year or so I have become acutely aware of the power of his environment.  All parents who love their kids get it- It is this terrifying reality we face as we pray every day that our kids don’t make the wrong choice and end up beginning what can easily turn out to be the beginning of the end as we know it today.  At the very least we as parents need to do our part.  We can only control so much but what we can control, we should control and do it right.