During the early teens, "fitting in" with friends is a strong influence. In some ways, the onset of puberty is like a "rebirth." Children want and need to let go of the past and to find their own unique identity: this often means letting go of old friendships and ties with teachers and other adults, as well as old ways of doing things. The decision-making and problem-solving methods they learned as young children are still helpful, but young teens will be making new decisions based on new information and new goals. It is at this time, parents need to be actively talking to their children about the dangers of underage drinking, driving after alcohol or drug use, or riding in a vehicle with someone who has consumed alcohol or drugs.
Young people this age can begin to deal with abstractions and the future. They understand their actions have consequences and they know how their behavior affects others. They sometimes have a shaky self-image: they are not sure whether they are growing and changing adequately, are often in conflict with adults, are not sure where they are headed and tend to see themselves as not "okay." Strong emotional support and healthy adult role models are particularly important now to discuss the negative results of underage drinking and using drugs.
Young people who experiment with alcohol, tobacco, and using drugs typically begin before leaving the ninth grade. Parents talking to their children need be sure to emphasize their family values and the importance of staying true to themselves and their values. Another tip for a parent to remember is that when talking to children about drugs, they should emphasize the immediate, unpleasant effects of alcohol and other drug use. Telling junior high school students who are smoking they will get lung cancer or heart disease in several decades is less likely to make an impression than talking about bad breath, stained teeth and fingers, and smelly clothing.
Using drugs is something many young people do because they see their friends using drugs. A large portion of your prevention efforts during these years should be spent reinforcing your child's motivation to avoid alcohol and other drugs, and guiding them in their decisions of who to spend time with.
Keys to prevention at this age: Modeling healthy behaviors, encouraging participation in healthy activities with positive peers, providing strong emotional support, and emphasis on family values, expectations, and consequences.
Sources: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Intergovernmental and Interagency Affairs, Educational Partnerships and Family Involvement Unit, Tips for Parents on Keeping Children Drug Free, Washington, D.C., 2003.