It was last February when Amy learned from another mother that her son had come around one afternoon smelling of pot. Amy wasn't going to take any chances, and the next day she searched Eric's car. "I came out with a bong, some bud, a cutter and some papers," says the mother. When she confronted her son, he did not deny it. When Amy and her husband asked if he had any other drug paraphernalia, Eric said no. But soon the couple found medical marijuana bottles in Eric's room. They immediately took their son's car away for a month.
A month later, Amy again found marijuana in Eric's car. At this point, she and her son made a deal that he would no longer smoke, and as proof, he would take a drug test in 45 days. Wondering if he had been lying, Amy checked with the representative working at her son's high school from the Thelma McMillen Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment at Torrance Memorial Medical Center and found out that marijuana would show up on a drug test for only up to 30 days. Tired of the games, Amy took her son to the McMillen Center for a free test.
Amy's suspicions were correct. Eric tested positive for marijuana. Although Amy and her husband had been disciplining Eric, they felt their control-and his drug use-spiraling. Finally, after Eric was suspended from school that spring for smelling of pot, the family went to the McMillen Center for a free assessment, in which the parents and teen are all questioned and spoken to separately to see if the center's outpatient program is for them.
"Like any kid, he was really upset, at first, when we told him about having to go through the [McMillen] program," says Amy. "He said he could quit. But we were adamant that we'd given him so many chances and he continued to smoke."
Amy considers herself lucky. She and her husband were able to catch their son's problem before he spiraled too far out of control or started abusing other drugs. From her parents group at the McMillen Center, she knows stories of teens having been court-ordered to be in the program. "We never had to go there in that way; thank God for that," she says. Not to mention, some kids also are dealing with a dual diagnosis-a mental problem.
Although Amy wishes she had noticed sooner, she attributes her involvement in her son's life to helping her spot that something was wrong. "Sophomore year he had Bs and As on his report card, but junior year he dropped to one B, Cs and Ds," says Amy. She and her husband found Eric's new crowd of friends suspicious. His old friends said hello and had conversations with them. The new crowd skulked in and out of the house, eyes averted. But of course, hindsight is 20/20.
Now that Eric is on his way to recovery, a big part of the process for the entire family is trust. Initially, cars and privileges were taken away from Eric, but he is slowly earning them-and his trust-back from his parents.
Like Amy, many parents in the South Bay are worried that their teenagers might fall prey to drugs and alcohol abuse. It's important for parents to be aware and involved in their children's lives so when something goes wrong-whether it be drugs or depression or even something physical-a parent can intervene early and correctly.
Moe Gelbart, PhD, executive director at the Thelma McMillen Center, warns that parents need to know not only the facts but also the myths about teens and drug abuse. Myth number one: everyone experiments with marijuana, and it isn't harmful. What most people don't realize is that today's marijuana is 10 times more potent than it was 30 or 40 years ago, and it has addicting and negative effects. Myth number two: everyone drinks. While 75% of high school students admit to drinking alcohol, 25% choose not to drink at all.
Once you're aware of the danger of any drug or alcohol use, how do you know if your child is using? While there are many signs, some of the most obvious include poor grades, depression, behavioral changes, appearance changes, new friends, withdrawal and lying about whereabouts.
"A classic thing to look for is a change in your child's behavior," says Donnie Watson, program director at the Thelma McMillen Center. This means the child is not smiling as much, is moody, more secretive or just different. Many kids will start lying, breaking curfew and being verbally abusive. "If you think there is something wrong, there's a good chance there is. You have to trust your instincts," says Watson.
Beyond behavioral signs, there are physical signs such as bloodshot eyes or a lack of good hygiene, as well as a runny nose, paranoia, skin problems and dry lips. Some children are just more susceptible to falling into drugs and alcohol, like those experiencing trauma or emotional distress caused by external factors-family issues, abuse or a genetic predisposition to alcohol or drug abuse. Parents of these children need to be even more vigilant.
Gelbart says to be firm from the get-go to stop a potential problem early. "If your kid says he went out and drank this weekend with his friends-but everyone does, deal with the incident as it comes up. Do not wait," he adds. Lying is a huge part of drug and alcohol use. "So even if a kid says the marijuana you found is not his and it was the first time he ever smoked, chances are, he's not telling the truth."
What to Encourage
Parents can take preventative measures to try to dissuade drug and alcohol abuse and raise a happy, successful teen. First, it's important to teach a teen a sense of accomplishment, how to care for others and responsibility at home and in the community. While this is no guarantee, "being involved in healthy activities builds self-esteem, takes away the notion of boredom and builds healthy minds," says Gelbart. Any extracurricular activities can do this, whether they are sports, music, clubs, religious groups, volunteering, etc. It just means encouraging your children to be a part of a group or organization.
"Low self-esteem and drug use are the cousins of isolation," says Gelbart. He does warn that entering into extracurricular activities can turn dangerous if the parents' or the student's expectations for achievement become too high. "It's healthy to play a sport, but then if it becomes about getting a college scholarship, it is often too much pressure."
Another way to raise a happy and healthy teen is to lead by example. "You model behavior, and they learn to do what you do, not what you say," says Gelbart. For example, he says it's foolish to think a parent can go out and drink heavily or use drugs socially and then tell a child they cannot do these things.
In addition, parents need to not back away from setting limits. There are three components to completing this task successfully: First: Set limits. "Let children know there is behavior you will not accept," says Gelbart. Second: There have to be consequences if the limits are crossed. Third: A parent must follow through. "Just saying you can't do something without consequences and follow-through will not work," he adds.
Gelbart does recommend that parents carefully pick their battles. Think about dividing everything into A, B and C. Category A is non-negotiable, such as going to school or not drinking. C is something a parent would prefer the child does not do, but can live with (for example, dying their hair pink). And B is in the middle and requires negotiation. If everything falls under the A category, children will not follow any rules.
Yet another preventative measure is to keep open lines of communication. Watson said the number one preventative factor to keeping teenagers off drugs and alcohol is to sit down and have dinner with your children two to three times a week. This means regular discussions with your teens and being careful not to invalidate their feelings-whether or not you agree with them. Instead of saying, "You shouldn't be angry," try saying, "I understand why you are angry."
What about your teen's privacy? Gelbart says give them trust and independence, but if they give you a problem, pull back a little on that rope. If a child is using drugs or alcohol, that privacy is totally out the window. "You're trying to save a life and a future," says Gelbart. Don't be afraid to set limits early. "The younger they are, the easier it is to influence them and set limits," he says. For example, tell an 11-year-old they can have an account on Facebook, but only if you, as the parent, check it regularly.
Finally, don't make the mistake of trying to be friends with your child. "Kids have enough friends. They're not going to always like your decisions, nor should they have to," says Watson.
Where To Turn
If a parent suspects drug or alcohol use, they may avoid seeking help for a teen due to shame, fear or embarrassment. "It's hard to say to someone, `My son is smoking. Do you know a good doctor or treatment center?'" says Gelbart. But especially with the privacy of the internet, there are many resources available to parents (see sidebar).
One close-to-home resource is the child's school. Jennifer Woodie is a guidance counselor at Mira Costa High School and often gets involved if students are seeking help for themselves, a friend or a family member dealing with substance abuse. "We build a team around that student," she says, which often involves a counselor from the Thelma McMillen Center who comes to the school once a week. She is also in charge of offering resources for a student with chemical dependency. If depression or another mental problem is suspected, she recommends a parent call a general practitioner to seek medical help.
So what does Woodie hear from the students? "I want my parent to be a parent." These students do not need more friends; they need and want clear, black-and-white boundaries. The happiest and healthiest teens are the ones who feel accepted by their parents and peers unconditionally-no one is trying to make them into something they are not.
The Thelma McMillen Center
Perhaps the strongest resource in the South Bay is the Thelma McMillen Center. "The free evaluation is an hour and a half. We find out what is most needed by the child. Some don't belong here. Some need inpatient help. Some just have behavioral issues," says Gelbart. But for those who are candidates for the multi-disciplinary-mind, body and spirit-drug and alcohol treatment, a one-year program will begin that includes meeting with a team of physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, family therapists, chemical dependency counselors and fitness and nutrition specialists.
Gelbart helped start an outpatient program at Torrance Memorial Medical Center 20 years ago. After a generous $5.3 million donation from Karl McMillen, the program has expanded, a teen program was developed and a dedicated building opened in Torrance almost 10 years ago.
A large percentage of children want help once they speak with someone at the center. However, it's the parents who often offer resistance. That's why parents must be willing to help and be a part of recovery if their child is going to enter the program.
And the work, for teens and parents alike, is no joke. There are three phases of treatment-intensive care, transitional care and continuing care. The intensive phase requires the teens to be at the center four or five days a week for eight weeks, approximately three hours per day, after school. Next is the transitional phase, where the teen participates in outpatient work three times a week for four months. This includes group therapy, individual therapy, family therapy, drug education, physical education, time with a trainer and more. A student can opt out of the program after these two phases and still graduate; however, staff members prefer that the teen remain in the program for six more months.
The center generally sees about 100 kids a year, but Gelbart says they're barely scratching the surface in the South Bay community and would like to see more. As further outreach, the center places drug counselors at many of the local high schools. "There are no fees; it's part of community outreach," he says. The Thelma McMillen Center works closely with school districts in Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, Palos Verdes, Torrance and El Segundo to develop drug and alcohol prevention programs, lectures for parents and teachers, and other programs.
Rocky Wilson, PhD, is a teacher, a student intervention advisor and in charge of the drug education and prevention for both substance and alcohol abuse at Mira Costa High School. Once a day, he directs a class full of student leaders who are the "social conscience of school." He says, "I don't talk with students directly; I talk with these leaders, and they talk to the other students through drug panels and assemblies."
If a student is caught under the influence on campus, he or she is put into an eight-week program called IMPACT, where they speak with a drug and alcohol counselor and a parent is encouraged to go to a class. Wilson explains that for a percentage of the students, the IMPACT program works. "It makes a difference if they have family support," he says. "That's our biggest challenge at any school: to get the parents to show up and help work with you and the child as a team." Wilson cites the academic pressure in the South Bay is a contributing factor to teenagers feeling overwhelmed. While a lot of parents are involved, Wilson warns there are a lot of kids whose parents own companies or work long hours, so they are left alone for many hours and aren't involved.
Wilson is not belittling what a tough job parenting is. "Knowing when to intervene and when not to-that's tough," he says. "Many parents don't want to micro-manage their children and invade their privacy when not warranted, but you have to be vigilant. If something doesn't sit right, you need to investigate in an appropriate manner."
Wilson drives home the point that parents need to stay aware. Know who your children spend time with, where they hang out and what activities they participate in. Wilson also encourages parents to make children feel valued. "It's not about telling them they're fantastic and wonderful. That's not self-esteem. It's valuing them, rather than criticizing and judging them." Parents also need to hold kids accountable. "If freedom is free and you don't have to earn anything, that's a fertile ground for drug use and abuse."
Don't be ashamed to get into a parenting class. "It doesn't mean that you're a bad parent. It helps you update your parenting techniques."
More than six months has passed since Eric's entrance into the Thelma McMillen Teen Outpatient Program. Eric has passed the transitional phase, at which time he was attending group sessions, one-on-one counseling, family meetings and educational sessions after school for two hours a day and on Saturdays. He recently turned 17 and is back on his track for a successful future. He's completed four applications for California state colleges and is planning to take the El Camino placement test. "We chose to do something about it [Eric's drug use]," says Amy, "and everyone at Thelma was really helpful-from the front desk to the counselors."
If you suspect your teen may be in trouble, learn how Thelma McMillen Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment can help or call 310-784-4879.