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Teen Enjoys Alcohol and Drugs
Q: I'm a junior in high school. All of my friends and I smoke, drink, and do other things. I know it's self-destructive and it leads to what I'm sure are not safe sexual encounters. I can see it from an "outside" point of view as being horrible and dangerous, but somehow it doesn't seem to affect anything I do. I don't know if I could stop these things if I wanted to, but what's more scary is that I don't want to.
My parents know about a lot of it and they say "Well that's kids." Do you think that's true and that they're right and we'll all just grow out of it? I don't know, it's just confusing sometimes.
A: I'm going to be straight with you. I won't try to scare you out of your behaviors and attitude or insult your intelligence by telling you that you are sure to die from AIDS, become a drug addict, or die from lung cancer when you're 55 years old. Unfortunately, all too many adults think that showing pictures of diseased smokers' lungs or quoting the escalating rise in AIDS and STDs among teens is the best approach to turning kids away from these self-destructive actions.
I have never forgotten what it was like to be a teenager and to feel that I was indestructible. If I had unhealthy or dangerous habits, I fully believed that they would never get me into trouble and that I could stop them whenever I wanted -- on a dime. What a fool I was! My own kids were more fearful in their teen and young adult years than I was because they have seen classmates and friends do serious damage to their minds and bodies with drug-taking, drinking, and dangerous sexual behavior. The stakes are higher for you than they were for me.
If you are being honest with me about your parents' knowing about "a lot" of your self-destructive, dangerous habits and behaviors and responding so casually,I feel badly for you that your folks are that much in denial. As you have already discovered, it's one thing to intellectually know you are engaging in risky sex and drug taking -- it's quite another to realize that despite your intellect's telling you to stop, you don't think that you can or want to stop.
I am not going to tell you that the vast majority of teenage kids who smoke, do drugs, drink, and have sex will end up with major health and psychological problems or in trouble with the law. You and I know that experimenting with these substances and behaviors does not condemn you to those fates. What concerns me most about your letter is that you seem to be overwhelmed and confused by your drive to keep doing the things that you know are not healthy for you. You seem almost resigned to keep doing self-destructive things and appear to want someone who cares about you to help you stop this way of life.
I am going to appeal to the part of you that wants a more healthy, in-control life -- the strong part of you that can refuse to be a slave to self-destructive desires and behaviors, no matter how much pressure you feel to give in to them. Please confide in an adult whom you respect and/or find out the name of a good, understanding therapist that you could trust. Just make the connection -- that's all that I'm asking. I've just seen too many kids "go under" who had the same confusion and attitudes as you do.
Take a first step. Then take one step at a time. It took time to get where you are in terms of attitudes and behavior. It'll take a while to transition out of that mode. Thanks for writing. You've got courage and that counts for a lot. Write me again if I can help in any way.
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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.