Teens and Risky Behavior

Drug and alcohol abuse can put teenagers in the hospital.
Drug and alcohol abuse can put teenagers in the hospital.

Picture this: A young life is depending on a mechanical ventilator for each breath while IVs are pumping life-saving medications into several areas of the teenager's arms. Electronic wires taped to his chest are hooked up to a special screen monitoring each heartbeat from this formerly active, social and popular person who is now in a seemingly deep sleep, which continues on and on.

You may be thinking, "What horrible disease caused this problem and could a medication given at an earlier time have stopped this terrible event from progressing?" The sad facts are this was a totally preventable occurrence and the first signs of the problem began to show much earlier in the teen's life. Perhaps a tincture of communication from parents, combined with a dash of supervision and understanding, along with a portion of leading by example, might have helped. Certainly some good fortune may be involved, because even the best parents in the world can have a child affected by this epidemic in our society.

What Are You Talking About Doc?

I am talking about drug and alcohol abuse by our young students and future leaders of our country. In fact, over these next 24 hours more than 15,000 teenagers will try drugs for the first time, and it is estimated that 2.4 million people in this age group will use illegal drugs during the coming year. Another scary fact is more than half of high-school seniors have admitted to using illegal drugs at some point in their young lives. That's right, more than 50 percent, which includes some of our nation's brightest and financially well-off teenagers.

It's Not a Movie, It's Real

All it takes is one person to bring out the emotions, the heartache and the question of "Why?" Recently I was speaking with Janis, a critical care nurse at the hospital where I work. She is a very caring, experienced and well-trained professional. I have known Janice for many years, and on this day her normal smile turned into a very serious expression. She said to me, "As I stood around the intensive care unit, I marveled at the recent high percentage of beds occupied by patients (mostly young people) hospitalized because of drug or alcohol abuse." Janice went on to say, "I wish we could march all the middle- and high-school kids through the unit to see what a drug overdose looks like. They could witness a seemingly healthy young adult with tubes in every orifice and crowds of family and friends crying at their bedside not knowing whether they will pull through or not."

Have the Talk

The Family Environment

I hear teachers, police and fire professionals involved with various drug education programs express that with children, especially when they are younger, "it's what they encounter in the home which is most important. That it isn't as important what the parents say, but what they do which children learn by." For example, if you cope with stress or disappointment by drinking or smoking, your children are more likely to do the same thing. Hard to believe, but by grades four to six many children know a classmate who has begun to smoke or use drugs. It is during these later years of elementary school when choices involving drugs and alcohol are being made by our children. It is especially important for parents to teach their children at this young age to make decisions on their own and not to be a follower. These lessons may help your child avoid some of the peer pressure to" join in."

Just Speak to Them. Get Involved

It seems that the most successful discussions are those that involve conversation, rather than those that involve accusations. Perhaps you might say to your child, "Why do you think students use drugs, and how do they deal with the peer pressure?" as opposed to putting your child on the spot and pressuring him or her to say whether they have used drugs or not. This may be a lot easier said than done. But being open and honest, rather than accusatory, with your children about your views on drugs and alcohol can better help them understand why you don't want them taking part. Discuss facts and information rather than using scare tactics.

Parents, learn about drugs and don't get discouraged. Your child may seem as if she or he isn't listening, but please don't give up. Hopefully love and support, as well as keeping involved with your child's life, will give them a good sense of self-worth, and the ability to stay drug free.

For more information, please call the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention's National Clearinghouse at 1-800-729-6686.

Copyright 2003, Dr. Rob Danoff

Robert Danoff, D.O., M.S., is a family physician. He is program director of Family Practice Residency Frankford Hospitals, Jefferson Health System, Philadelphia, Pa. He also is a medical correspondent for The Comcast Network, CN8, contributing writer to the New York Times and writes a weekly medical column for the Bucks Courier Times, Bucks County Pa.