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Helping Teens Cope With Change—Without Drugs and Alcohol

From parental divorce to school closures, unwelcome life changes are distressing for adolescents; some turn to substances. Guide them toward healthy emotional responses instead

Helping Teens Cope With Change—Without Drugs and Alcohol
All Sober Editor

When you're a teenager, "life moves pretty fast," as a famous teenager once said long ago. Every year, every month, it's something new: Friends, romances, body stuff, driving lessons, AP exams, prom drama, first jobs, college applications.

Now add in social media pressures and distractions, digital addiction, fear about current events, and being cut off from your young life by the COVID pandemic. If you have a teen in today's world who lashes out along the lines of, "You'd never understand!"—they are right.

Change is difficult for most people, adolescents and grown-ups alike. It can feel unnatural to constantly adapt to new things when you're comfortable in your old actions, patterns or behaviors. Things are out of your control, yet decisions can feel overwhelming. It's a big reason anyone, but especially teens, turn to substances.

When a life transition occurs, it can seem easier to mask your feelings with illicit substances. According to the National Institutes of Health, adolescent substance use declined from 2020 to 2021, but 46.5% of 12th-graders still reported using alcohol in the past year, 30.5% reported using marijuana and 7.2% reported using other illicit drugs.

Substances can dull pain and distress quickly when it comes to dealing with unwanted change. But over time, using substances to cope can develop into addiction, with severe consequences on life, relationships, and physical and mental health. Most adolescents can't fully grasp that yet, so prevention is key.

Let's go through some healthy coping skills for navigating change—that both you and your teen can appreciate.

Give Teens Time and Space to Feel

In any transition, a teenager can feel lost and distressed. They will often act out before you even notice a problem. This is because teens sometimes struggle with healthy expression, and hormones can affect their emotions and behavior suddenly and unexpectedly. Since adolescents' brains are still developing, they need time to sit with their feelings and express what's going on in their heads.

Many things can influence an adolescent's brain and thinking patterns. When their feelings are rejected or internalized, they may feel like no one is listening. That's why a space for sharing feelings, ideas and concerns is critical to communication and mental health.

If you help your child understand at a young age that expressing feelings is healthy, that will do wonders when they are older.

Show How To Communicate Openly

This is where you come in as a parent. Lead by example: Make a practice of asking questions and being open and honest. You may find yourself holding back your own feelings because you do not want to hurt someone else's, but carefully crafting words can make all the difference.

Engaging in open communication within your household benefits the whole family. For others to understand you, you must communicate your desires and needs openly and effectively. No one can read your mind any more than you can read your kids' minds.

Prepare Your Teen for Change

Understanding that change is a daily part of life is critical to a healthy mindset. Life is always evolving, and sometimes for the good. But some changes in an adolescent's life—like divorce or switching schools—can be detrimental without preparation and open conversations with detailed information.

What does this look like? Let's use divorce as an example.

  • Explain the reasons for the change. Perhaps you and your partner are splitting. Explain (within reason) why the separation is happening and how the decision may impact the family going forward.
  • Outline clear roles and expectations. Give a timeline of when the physical separation will occur, and who will reside where and when. If family therapy or other changes will be part of the transition, explain that in this step.
  • Do a trial run. This can include making gradual changes or designating specific days where new routines will be practiced.
  • Gauge your teen for feedback. Allow your teen to express their concerns without judgment or interruptions.
  • Give a grace period. Allow your teen a grace period for mistakes. Understand that mistakes are part of being human, and everyone is entitled to their emotions.
  • Celebrate and perform maintenance as needed. Remember to praise your teen for healthy responses and continue to gauge their mental health throughout the transition.

Preparation leads to successful transitions, where teens feel they have the space and support to use healthy coping mechanisms. Including them in the process of whatever is happening will make them feel part of the transition rather than a victim of it.

Find Positive Peers

Navigating who to hang out with can be difficult for adolescents (and adults!). The adolescent brain desires acceptance, which is why peer pressure can be so insidious. It can manipulate the natural human desire for belonging toward destructive behavior, including substance use and misuse.

Within any transition, a teenager can go through many phases within a short period. It is imperative to establish trust with your teen and discuss the benefits of having positive peers they can rely on when times get tough.

You might even want to consider designating a more mature mentor—perhaps a trusted family friend or an aunt or uncle—that your kid can call if they make a poor choice and find themselves in a dire situation. This person should be someone they feel safe confiding in, who can advocate for all parties.

You'll Make Mistakes, They'll Make Mistakes, But Keep Trying

Sometimes life deals a raw hand—to you, to your teen or both. The best thing you can do is be present and accept the results. Commitment, practice and patience are essential in all stages of life.

During a tough transition, or really any part of raising a child to adulthood, you'll get it wrong sometimes—perhaps many times. Be emotionally open, keep talking through it and provide resources for teens to deal with whatever's going on. Introduce your teen to healthy coping skills early, and they may find substance use less attractive.

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