It’s natural to panic if you discover that your teen is either drinking or using drugs illicitly. Our first reaction as parents is to do something, anything, to deal with the problem and to do it immediately. That’s a great danger because doing the wrong thing can create even more serious problems.

It would be more accurate to say that it’s natural to panic when rather than if you discover that your teen has engaged in drinking or using illicit drugs. That’s because almost all teens experiment with alcohol and the vast majority experiment with using drugs illicitly. That’s completely natural and normal. The good news is that very few experience any serious or long-term negative consequences.

Maia Szalavitz, the well known author of articles and books about teens and their problems, suggests that parents first try to put things into perspective. Take a deep breath, don’t take any action until calming down, think about all your alternatives, and carefully consider the potential consequences of each option.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. But it’s essential not to over-react. Have your son or daughter’s grades suddenly dropped, attitudes changed, experienced problems with the law? Remember that adolescence is a time of great personal change and emotional turmoil. Are these the result of drinking or drugs, or are drinking or doing drugs an expression of adolescent struggles?

Szalavitz highly recommends that we carefully consider the potential consequences of any potential action. If we have them arrested as an expression of our “tough love,” what are the likely results of their having an arrest record? Have you thought of the fact that having an arrest record could bar them from entering professions such as law, criminal justice, education, and others? Do you really want to prevent them from obtaining federal or state loans for college, deprive them of scholarships, or even prevent their admission to the college of their choice? The arrest record could also increase their risk of alcohol or drug problems in the future because graduating from college lowers those risks.

Drinking alcohol at an early age does not cause later problems but is a result of earlier pre-existing personal characteristics. For example, behavioral psychologists have observed the play of pre-school children to predict accurately which would drink at an earlier age and have later problems in life. So simply consuming alcohol at an early age is not a reason for alarm.

Similarly, there is no evidence that drinking alcohol in moderation has any negative affects on young brains. To the contrary, there is substantial evidence that it has no negative effects on the human brain.

Sending a teen to a retreat or rehab program is probably the worst choice a parent could make. These facilities usually use the 12 steps and teach people that they are alcoholics and drug addicts, that they are powerless over these substances, that they must submit to God or a Higher Power, and that they can never drink any alcohol for the rest of their lives. For an actual example of the negative effects of such a rehab, visit Underage Drinking: What NOT to Do.

Young people can usually either moderate or abstain without being sent away to an expensive alcohol/drug retreat or rehab to live among troubled strangers. Choices include HAMS (Harm reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support), LifeRing Recovery, Women for Sobriety, Moderation Management, SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training), Rational Recovery, SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety) and the Life Process Program.

In the unlikely event that a rehab is necessary, there are a number of non-12-step retreats such as the fully accredited St. Gregory Retreat Center. It, and many others, can provide medical detoxification services if needed and accept most health insurance in payment.

Early Drinking

Does Beginning to Drink at an Early Age CAUSE Later Alcohol Abuse or Other Problems?

Genetics and Early Age of Drinking

Drinking Alcohol at an Early Age (Early Onset of Drinking) and Later Alcohol Problems: New Research

Early Onset of Drinking (Early First Drink of Alcohol) and Later Problems

Early Puberty Predicts Early Alcohol Drinking and Intoxication

Early Onset of Drinking

Age at First Drink ans Later Alcohol-Related Problems

Alcohol and Young Brains

“Drinking Alcohol Damages Teenagers’ Brains”

Brain Science Research Findings Misrepresented and Distorted

Dissenting Ideas on New Brain Science

Maia Szalavitz is author of the pioneering book Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. She has received prestigious awards from the American Psychological Association and the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology.

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