I see a lot of kids in my office. Well, my virtual office these days, but nonetheless, I see them. They meet with me as a result of different minor offenses they have committed, and I talk with them about what happened from their perspective. Many of the kids I see have offenses related to using electronic cigarettes or alcohol. If they use these chemicals regularly, my curiosity (and desire to learn how to best help prevent underage use in our community) always leads me to ask them what they like about using these things. And many times, the answer is: it reduces their stress.
And every time, it hits me like, wow, do I get it. I don’t get it because I condone the use of chemicals, or because I think chemicals are a good solution to problems. I get it because I also feel stress. And anxiety. And pressure. And demands. And expectations. And uncertainty. And sometimes, it all just feels like too much! But often, I forget that I get it, and I realize I’ve just been going along assuming teens use chemicals for the typical reasons: their friends do or peer pressure or wanting to fit in or they are bored or maybe they don’t know the risks. And so it surprises me sometimes when a teen’s response is “I choose chemicals to handle all the things going on in my life.” But it shouldn’t surprise me. Teens feel stress, and we should recognize that!
As adults, I think it can be easy to overlook the fact that teens can feel overwhelmed by things we might not consider stressful, or things we have the skills to handle without much thought. So we might wonder “what could a teenager possibly have to be that stressed about?!” But how can we help them if we don’t get it? If we want to diminish the “need” our youth feels to use chemicals, it makes sense that we must give credit to their stress, and recognize that teens’ responsibilities can be tough, particularly in these unpleasant times of masks and social distancing, and especially when they have little practice with coping skills and resiliency. I know there are positive ways to manage stress, and I want to help teens gain those skills, so they don’t turn to chemicals, but first I need to really get it.
Maybe it’s time we all acknowledge that even though we know chemicals are unhealthy, we can, and do, get it because we are human, and we understand what feeling stressed is like. For a teen without strong coping skills and with access to a quick and easy solution of e-cigs or alcohol, it makes sense they would manage their stress this way. But it is also a message. A message that they are overwhelmed and unable, or unsure how to, handle it in healthy ways. And it is time for adults to step in. To recognize teens’ struggles and their stress, and use the opportunity to help them grow and learn. Skills like time management, how to say no, dealing with stress, prioritizing, planning, and adjusting can go a long way in youth chemical use prevention.
Sarah Curtis, MA
Lakes Center for Youth and Families