Discouraging Teen Drug Use: Why Limit Setting Matters More Than Monitoring

The conventional wisdom for many years is that monitoring and limit setting go hand in hand in terms of discouraging teen drug use. But based on some of the work I’ve been doing over the past few years, the importance of limit setting has dwarfed the role of monitoring. 

Let me explain. I’ve been studying teens who have run into trouble using drugs. Sometimes the trouble is medical in nature, other times legal. But the teen has been using some type of substance and having a bad consequence. When we talk to the parents, the reality is that they often know where their kids are —and also what they are probably doing. It’s not like they think their kids are at the library reading and they are shocked to find out that they were at a party, or at a friend’s house. Their monitoring is actually pretty spot on.

What the issue seems to be is that the kids do not have strict enough limits set. There is a lack of a consistent message that substances can get them into trouble, or can make them sick. They aren’t hearing that kids who drink and drive sometimes die. They don’t hear about a teen who had a few beers and lost their balance and fell off a balcony. There is, in many cases, an acceptance that this is just a normal part of life for the teen.

For many parents, experimenting with substances in the teen years may have been the rule rather than the exception. But we know more about teen substance use now than we did decades ago. We know that the adolescent brain may not tolerate substances well. We know that behaviors like binge drinking can lead to tragic outcomes. We know that kids who may be susceptible to addiction may get on that pathway as teens as early-onset is highly predictive of later problematic use.

So, I would contend that parents are, overall, pretty good about monitoring their kids, in the descriptive sense of knowing where they are and who they are with. What seems to matter greatly is providing kids with the cognitive and social tools to know what the appropriate limits are, and how to abide by them. Open, frank discussions—and some enforced limits—are essential tools for helping teens make good decisions when they are where you think they are, with who you think they are with.

Father and Son via Shutterstock.com

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