By now, most school doors have closed and summer swings into full-tilt fun as teens excitedly romp into the time-honored tradition of summer break.
Yet, along with this free time, lack of homework, and perhaps more time away from the house and parents' watchful eyes come new freedoms that tantalize every teen's mind.
Unfortunately, as school-year stress melts away in the summer sun, also melting away are accountability, structure, supervision, stimulation, focus and even brain cells due to inactivity.
Add to these ingredients some new friends and some extra money from a summer job, and this dangerous summertime cocktail can be the cause of a higher number of young people experimenting with drugs, smoking their first cigarette and trying alcohol in June and July than at any other time of the year.
According to research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 11,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 use alcohol for the first time on an average day in June or July. December was the only other month of the year that had comparable numbers (think of family holiday parties and relaxed standards). Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the year, the average daily number of adolescents using alcohol for the first time was from 5,000 to 8,000.
Similarly, an average of 5,000 12- to 17-year-old youths try their first cigarettes in June and July, compared with 3,000 to 4,000 throughout the rest of the year. And more than 4,500 youth try marijuana for the first time in June and July. Beyond this, first-time hallucinogen and inhalant use also hit their highest levels during these two summer months.
To counteract the startling statistics, here are some practical tips for parents:
• Plan ahead and communicate with your kids regarding summer activities and daily routines including meals, wake-up, bedtime, curfew, TV, social (including dating), vacations, chores, a job, and expenses (depending on age).
• Communicate clear expectations of these areas, which will push kids to meet expectations. Develop clear rewards and incentives, as well as consequences.
• Put the discussion in the context of, "You're getting older and wanting more privileges and opportunity. In order for me to grant that to you, I need to see that you have the proper skills and can act responsibly. This summer will be a good opportunity for you to show me how much self-control, self-discipline, delayed gratification and time management skills, as well as maturity, you have. I don't want to give you more responsibility or freedom than you can handle because that would be setting you up to fail, and that would be unloving."
• If kids are left alone because you're at work, check in on them randomly.
• Be sure to plan some fun activities. This builds relationships, shows you care and keeps them engaged.
• Open communication lines are also vital, not only so you can help prevent your kids from trying anything dangerous but also so you can pick up on any struggles or potential struggles they may be facing or any drug or alcohol use that might start.
Additionally, always be sure to keep your radar up, and don't necessarily take what teens and pre-teens say at face value, particularly if you have other information that raises suspicion or is inconsistent with what your kids are saying or doing.
Finally, make sure you talk to your kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol all throughout the year. As parents, we must remember it's important to begin this conversation even with young kids. As we can see from this study, kids as young as 12 years old are experimenting with their first drug, smoking their first cigarette and taking that first drink of alcohol, and we as parents need to do everything we can to prevent this destructive behavior before it starts.
Parenting is the most rewarding job, but it also can be the most difficult and painful. Deuteronomy 6:5-7 offers important guidance: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise."
As in all other areas, having a strategy, skills and a coach is beneficial in parenting, too.
Dr. Karl Benzio is founder, executive director, and a psychiatrist at Lighthouse Network, an addiction and mental health counseling helpline; 1-844-LIFE-CHANGE (1-844-543-3242). Follow him on Twitter at @drkarlb, and sign up for daily Stepping Stones devotionals at lighthousenetwork.org/stepping-stones.