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Preventing substance abuse among our teens

Wednesday, August 13, 2014
The Starke Reality

Recently I had to comfort a mother whose 17-year-old son left to spend the night at a friend’s house and never returned home. He died from a drug overdose. 

My son came home from work the other day and was very upset. He had just learned that his friend’s 16-year-old son had hung himself. The principal of a school in the US told me that her 14-year-old son was just expelled from school because he was having sex with another 14-year-old in the school library. Another young mother called me in distress because her 14-year-old was trying to jump off the third floor of a building. 

Both here and abroad, our teenagers are in crisis. Once again, I have to urge the parents of teenagers to make sure that their teens feel a sense of belonging, that they have a physical and emotional sanctuary to come home to, and above all that they feel loved. Teenagers still need to be told, “I love you” by their parents. We also have to keep the lines of communication open and when we fail we have to try harder. 

I know this is not always easy. Sometimes, I had to really humble myself in order to reach out to my own teenagers. By that, I mean when all I really felt to do was shout out in anger and frustration, I had to contain myself and make the effort to be calm and patient in order to create a win-win situation that would not push my teenagers away from me—and this can happen very easily. I remember how tough it was, but I still think we get good results when we put in the work of being available to our teens physically and emotionally. 

Amidst the school violence, the teen pregnancy and the escalating suicides among our teenagers there is another enemy that lurks, substance abuse. I am constantly reminded by teens themselves how easy it is to get drugs and alcohol. I am also constantly reminded by teenagers how confusing and complex the world is for them as they strive to find their place in it. They are confused by the extreme violence at home and abroad, the high failure rate of relationships around them, the difficulties to find and keep jobs, the lack of true role models, the disparity that exists socially and the list broadens as we keep focused on all the challenges we face in today’s global environment. 

It is important to be aware of what’s taking place in our country and our world but again, I urge you to be more focused on your immediate environment and do all that you can to support and protect the children and teenagers that are in your care. If you are blessed with the challenge of raising a child or teenager, you have been mandated with a very special opportunity to learn and grow so that you can succeed and do the best that you can for them. 

In addition to providing the physical and emotional sanctuary I talked about earlier, one of the strategies that works well is making sure that our teenagers keep busy —that their lives are filled with useful and enjoyable activities. Do not underestimate the power of making sure that they do not have too much time on their hands.

Part-time jobs may be difficult to secure but there are always so many jobs around the house and the neighbours’ houses. Volunteering is another valuable opportunity and a great tool for keeping our youths busy. Have them volunteer at the local churches, community centres, hospitals and other places that are willing to work with you. 

Do not run around doing everything yourself and then complain that they do not help. Most teenagers will help if you clarify what they need to do. Show some appreciation, give encouraging feedback and use these opportunities to build their self-confidence with encouraging remarks, not criticism. Above all, be consistent —take some time to have an organised approach to help them understand what responsibilities you would like them to undertake in the home. Use the opportunity to build a rapport with your teenagers and keep them close to you emotionally. 

Make sure that you meet your teenagers’ friends and their friends’ parents, especially if they are spending the night and feel free to limit the number of nights they spend away from you. Be very selective as I feel the need to remind you that children and teenagers are continually being sexually abused by troubled people they know and trust. Yes, there are many challenges but the joy that children and teenagers can bring to our lives especially as we grow older outweigh the challenges every time I count. 

• If you have questions and/or comments, please contact Dr Starke at [email protected] or


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