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Teen Reality Gap

Wednesday, June 05, 2013
By Darcy McConnell, M.Ed., LADC, LPC

A recently released publication from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reveals that teen drug and alcohol abuse has hit an all-time high nationwide. Oklahoma specific statistics indicate that over 34,000 Oklahoma teens abused drugs in the past month (information gathered by interviews). These same statistics indicate that 20 percent of OK teenage boys report abusing alcohol within the past month. Data also reports OK boys are more likely to binge drink by consuming 5 or more drinks in one sitting than OK girls. Finally, OK is ranked among the States with the highest rate of past year non-medical use of pain relievers by teens age 12-17.

As a professional working with persons who struggle with drug and alcohol related issues, I often find myself questioning why our society glamorizes such dangerous behaviors. It’s been a long time since I went out shopping or surfed through cable TV and was not bombarded with beer/liquor ads or movie/TV advertisements promoting alcohol, sex and drugs. Our media paints a drastically skewed and frankly unrealistic reality for our young people. Unfortunately, I see this having a much bigger impact than one might think. I have written several times in past articles about the “reality gap” that most teens experience. Teens continue to experience difficulty working towards acceptance of responsibility and accountability when many don’t believe what they’re doing is wrong. This issue becomes much more complicated when parents do not support these values and display respect for rules and laws. A good example of this disregard is when parents say, “Oh, a little marijuana never hurt anyone; in fact, I did it when I was young and I’m fine” or “ I would rather them drink at the house where I can keep an eye on them and not be out driving around”. The truth is that 2011 is a much different time than even 15 years ago. Not everything always turns out okay in the end and sometimes really bad things happen to people. We live in a reality where laws are much tougher and drugs and alcohol can be deadly. High risk behaviors during the teenage years often have lifelong consequences, such as: teen parenthood, addiction, costly legal involvement, delayed success and tarnished reputations.

Teens living in Edmond often report that alcohol and drugs are present at parties and social gatherings that they attend. It is often reported that many experience inner conflict between attending and participating in these social activities versus not attending. Parents often report that they have no problem with their teens going to parties where there may be alcohol as long as they do not drink because they understand that this may be where all of their friends are going. It is this right or wrong?

I think that we may all agree that our media and society in general sensationalizes alcohol consumption and other high risk behaviors. Our teens may follow this sensationalism which contributes to their accepting and, at times, dismissing beliefs with regard to the situations. Young people are developing their belief systems during their teen years and parents have great influence over this developmental process. Respect for self, one’s future and the law becomes so much more important once a child becomes 18 years old because, right or wrong, there are no more second chances. There is also an increase in freedom for most 18-year-olds. Unfortunately, a sixteen- year- old teen who believes marijuana is not dangerous and drinking is what you do at parties on the weekend, is likely to take those beliefs when or she moves away from home to college or out on his/her own and build a lifestyle around that belief system. This unreal perspective could result in substance abuse or other negative stressors as coping mechanisms in the young adult. While it may be an “uphill battle”, we have to work together to educate and keep our teens living accountable lives and developing belief systems that facilitate and allow them to live successful lives as adults. If you, as parents, find yourself uttering the words; “It will all be okay and they’ll straighten up because we did or people do”, think back to what impact the media had upon your beliefs about alcohol, sex, and drugs when you were a teen. I may have been a kid, but from what I have found, it does not hold a candle to the blinding presence it has today. If the rate of substance abuse continues to increase in our teens, the chances that your teen will be the one to struggle with a drug or alcohol problem to the point that it interferes with the functioning of his or her life also increases.

If you or someone you know is having trouble with a teen engaging in high risk behaviors, please seek a professional who can help to find the needed resources.

Darcy McConnell is a therapist at Edmond Family Counseling, Inc. and can be reached at 341-3554.

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