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Freshman Drinks and Smokes

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: Over the past few weeks I've discovered that my high-school freshman daughter has been drinking and has smoked cigarettes. She had a physical exam last week and was tested for drugs, which turned out negative. She's in gifted and honors classes at school, but this is the first year that she's having problems completing her work assignments. She does well on tests; however, the missing work brings her grade down. She seems depressed and withdrawn. When we (her father and I) try to discuss it with her, she becomes agitated and very defensive. "I don't have a problem." What is the best approach in handling such a problem?

Background: My father was an alcoholic and two of my brothers were into drugs. No dependencies in my husband's family. I had discussed the issues of genetics with my daughter and cautioned her about alcohol and drug use. She's always felt as though she doesn't fit in and does not have a lot of friends; however, she's had one good friend since kindergarten and another close friend for three years.

A: We have several issues here but the one I am most concerned with is your saying your daughter seems depressed and withdrawn. Teens your daughter's age are going to experiment with "adult behaviors" in their attempt to form their own identity and break away from their parents (i.e. independence). Your daughter is still the same great kid she was before you found out about the drinking and cigarettes. If you show your values surrounding alcohol and cigarettes by your day to day behaviors, that is the best teaching you can provide. Informing her of your family's difficulties with alcohol and drugs is fine; expecting it will scare her out of experimenting with them to some extent is unrealistic. It is your job to state the facts as you know them about alcohol, cigarettes and drugs including the legal issues. You do need to establish an iron-clad rule about her driving with anyone who has been drinking, and later on, about her drinking/drugging and driving.

As to her not following through on her homework assignments and lowering her grades in the process, you can, as always, state your expectations of her working to her maximum potential and continue to encourage her for any progress she makes in the homework area. Volunteer to do anything you can to create the best learning and studying environment possible at home. She will learn the natural consequences of not doing work and then have to deal with how that makes her feel.

Right now she probably thinks you think she has become a kid you don't like or trust. You have to avoid preaching and making her feel this way. You can express your concerns without abandoning your belief in her. If her depression goes on for weeks and she is withdrawing from friends and family, I would consider you go see a family therapist and get some good advice. Teens' moods change radically at this stage from day to day and yes, she will be defensive and react as if she is under attack. Abide with her, support her and live your values. Good luck.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.

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