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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Sheeren

Summer Support: How Parents Can Help Teens Stay Safe and Substance-Free This Summer

It’s summertime and you’re ready to create some memories! Visions of barbecues and beach days dance through your head. There you are, twirling around in the sand with your kids, a bonfire blazing as the sun sinks into the Pacific. Everyone is laughing in slow motion. The perfect Marin County summer.


Then you wake up. 


Your to-do list is zipping through your head as you pop into your kid’s rooms to be sure they are accounted for and have something other than junk food and video games planned for the day. Where are they going? Who will they be with? What are they doing? When will they be home? 


How do we take a realistic approach to summer this year? One that accounts for our anxieties and (valid) concerns and also makes space for the fun and the joy of longer days and increased family time. 


How do we prepare for the increased freedom of summer while knowing it can be a risky time for teens? A study from the researchers at NYU’s School of Medicine has found that first-time substance-use, and intensified substance-use, both peak in the early summer months. And while these facts are real and overwhelming, something else is also true: we have the power to make a difference in the lives of our kids (and the other kids in our community). How? Let's simplify with a list!


How You Can Have The Best Summer Ever (while doing all that is in your power to keep your kids safe and benefit your community, at large. NO BIG DEAL)


1)    MODEL GOOD BEHAVIOR  (and have fun doing it!)


While this may feel overly simplistic, we can assure you: It isn’t. We’ve known from the time they were very young that, for better or for worse, our kids mimic our behaviors. (I once watched my 18-month-old daughter frantically run around the house with my bra hanging from her head, an old coffee cup in her hand, mumbling something about losing her keys. Absolutely uncanny.) 


Our kids are looking to us to understand how to navigate the world. They are noting how we deal with our stresses and celebrate our wins. If alcohol is always in the mix, we’re sending a clear message. This isn’t to say you should never have your own grown-up parties, but cutting booze out at events where kids are the focus has been shown to have a massive effect. (The research.) The shift here doesn’t need to be monumental. Just a little nudge towards showing your kids that alcohol isn’t ubiquitous with every high and every low.


How to make it more fun? Create some delicious mocktails and let everyone in the family enjoy them together! Want a more sophisticated grown-up option? These brands have done some amazing things in the alcohol-free beverage space. Best Day Brewing (local NA beer). Lyres (NA spirits that will blow your mind). All the Bitter (northern-california based bitters that elevate any drink – even bubbly water!)


For more info on how (and why) to keep kids events alcohol-free, check out Raising the Bar


2)     SHARE YOUR VALUES


It may feel like our kids don’t care what our beliefs are. (After all, we’re old.) But, not only do our kids care--our values can actually help to shape theirs! We don’t have to be fully sober to express our feelings about substances. Saying something like “You are so brilliant and curious and wonderful and I hope you do everything you can to protect your amazing mind for as long as possible” is different than saying “you’ll be grounded if you smoke weed”. Sharing our values is not about repercussions or punishments. It's about exploring the “why” behind what we’re asking of them, and giving them the opportunity to share their experiences, as well.


Fun fact: 56% of kids cite their parents as the main reason they choose not to drink or do drugs.


3)     LIMIT ACCESS


This one may be a little easier for most of us to wrap our heads around, but there are still some hold outs here, so let’s dive in. Obviously, our kids cannot drink and do drugs if there are no drinks or drugs to be had. While we cannot control for all of their points of access, we can control for some. For decades a large percentage of parents have believed that by allowing kids to drink in our homes we are “keeping them safe”. We are here to tell you, unequivocally: this concept has been debunked. Not only are kids who are allowed to drink in their homes MORE likely to binge drink, they are also more likely to drive drunk. Yes, you read that right. (Please, tell all your friends.) Letting our kids drink in our homes is doing the EXACT OPPOSITE of what we’d hoped it would do. (Check out the latest research here.)


So, what can you do instead? Make your home fun in other ways! Have games and movies and fun food available! It may sound like you're prepping for an 8-year-olds birthday, but please know, teens love fun little snacks and movies just as much! Let them “push the limits” by staying up watching movies they couldn’t when they were younger and eating junk food into the wee hours of the night. Teen brains are wired for risk-taking. Let them “break the rules” in a container that is safe.


Additionally: Set some ground rules. Be clear that you’re not in support of underage drinking and that it is allowed at your home. It is illegal and you are liable. Familiarize yourself with Social Host Ordinances in your city. (You can check out or BTI Party Guide here.) And remind your kids that when other kids are in your home, they are in your care. You don’t know their family situation or potential risk factors and must take every precaution to protect them. (This clip from Screenagers sums it up well.)


Worried your kids will leave your house and head to their friend’s houses? Let’s hop to our next point. 


4)    REACH OUT TO OTHER PARENTS


The thought of calling one of my teenage son’s friend’s parents to ask them to discuss their views on underage drinking sounds like a nightmare to me. It’s like, cold-calling meets social anxiety meets somehow-I-am-back-in-high-school-and-maybe-the-cool-kids-wont-like-me.


But, as a parent tasked to keep my kids safe and healthy, I can do hard things. And to be honest, this conversation doesn’t have to be a painful one. It doesn’t even have to be a conversation! 


A simple text message to the effect of “Hi, my son/daughter said they were coming over to your house today to hang out with _______. I just wanted to be sure an adult was going to be around!” is all it takes. By connecting with other parents/caregiving from the onset, it creates the opportunity for future conversations.


5)      KEEP THE LINES OF COMMUNICATION OPEN


Talking to our kids about substances can feel hard. We want to say the right thing in the right way and for every word to have maximum impact. But, here’s some incredible news: it’s okay if we “mess up,” if we stumble, if we say something a little off. The most important thing we can do is start the conversation, and keep it going. By engaging with our kids in this way we show them that we care, that we’re willing to be uncomfortable. We are modeling for them what it looks like to come to someone you love and have a tough conversation. We are showing them that it’s okay to not have all the answers, but that we’re trying our best, and that we’ll always be there to help them figure it out. More than anything, we are saying “I love you and I want to be there for you” which is more powerful than any canned conversation or data point available.


Need some help getting started? The Let’s Talk program has two incredibly informative and useful booklets, one designed for parents of middle schoolers, and one for parents of high schoolers, both available in English and Spanish. These are chock-full of easy to digest data and conversation starters. You can download the full packet here.


6)    MAKE IT FUN!

Underage substance use is serious. Dependence on alcohol, tobacco or other drugs is serious. Overdose is serious. The reality that Marin teens are particularly at risk for these issues is serious. But showing these kids a life outside of substances; modeling behaviors that we want them to replicate; talking to them so that they feel seen and heard; having dance parties and beach days and barbecues where we are fully present and there for them? That is serious, too. 


Sure, maybe this isn’t the summer that everyone looks like they’ve tumbled directly out of an Old Navy ad and onto the beach. Maybe we aren’t drinking kool-aid and high-fiving by the pool. Maybe this isn’t the moment our kids come to us filled with gratitude for all that we’ve done for them. But maybe it is the summer that we pick our kid up at 1am because they felt safe calling and asking for help. 


Yes, maybe we’re busy managing work and life and we cannot be out here making everyone’s summer dreams come true. But maybe, one day, our kids will look back and think about our awkward conversations in the car, and the time we mixed all the juices in the fridge and called it a mocktail, and all the fun they had playing board games with their friends (because that’s all we’d let them do) and they’ll think to themselves “that really was the best summer ever. Also, my parents are a little weird.” And really, could any of us ask for more?


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