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Isn’t teen smoking, drinking and drug use just a rite of passage?

I’ve had a pretty phenomenal week! I have
travelled across the country, given 21 talks across five schools and have met
some of the most amazing young people. The last two days were particularly
special. I was at two very well-known boys’ schools in Brisbane and at the end
of almost every session I delivered I was approached by students who wanted to thank me
for the presentation but also to share that they had made the decision not to
drink and that they had appreciated my message that there were a growing number
of young people who had made a similar decision.

Earlier in the week I also had a Year 12 young
man who came up to me, shook my hand and said the following:

you came and spoke to us in Year 10 and told us that you didn’t drink (and
never really had through your life), it made me realize that that was an
option. I had never thought it was before then. I’m now 18, three years on and
I have made the choice not to drink. I just wanted to say thanks!”

As I said, I have had a phenomenal week!

This idea that is pushed by some that all
teens are going to go through a stage where they are going to smoke, drink or
take other drugs and that it is simply a ‘rite of passage’ is simply not
correct. Now no-one should stick their head in the sand and pretend that there
isn’t a problem. When it comes to alcohol in particular – it would be true to
say that most young people will experiment with it at some time during their
adolescence. However, the same cannot be said for illegal drugs, particularly
when we’re talking about teenagers. Most young people have never tried illegal
drugs, they have no interest in these substances and they never will. Study
after study after study confirms this, yet try and get this fact reported in
the media and you hit a brick wall.

Interestingly, you often hit that very same
brick wall when you speak to the teenagers themselves.

One of the
slides in my talk reveals the number of young people who have not used illicit drugs. It always raises eyebrows with many of the
teenagers surprised that the number is not significantly higher. Max was a Year
11 student, 16 years of age and an outspoken critical thinker. Instead of just
whispering to the person next to him about his doubts regarding the figure he
stood up and argued his case.

find those figures very hard to believe,” he said. “Everybody I know uses
drugs. That slide just doesn’t ring true – where did you find those people who
you surveyed?”

informing him and the rest of the group how the national survey data was
collected I decided to challenge him on the statement he had made.

everybody you know uses drugs?” I said. “You’re in a room full of over 100 of
your peers – are you saying that every one of these young people in this room
uses drugs?”

of course not,” he replied. “I don’t mean people at school, I mean the people I
know out of school. They all use drugs.”

then wanted to know what drugs he was talking about and he informed me that
cannabis was the drug of choice for ‘everybody’.

me a number,” I asked him. “I want an actual number of the people that you know
for a fact use cannabis. You have seen these people smoke the drug, not simply
heard about it, or believe it to be true – you know for a fact. Work it out and
give me the number.”

took Max quite a while to respond and for a while I thought my test was going
to backfire, but he was an intelligent and thoughtful young man and was taking
my challenge seriously. When he finally did give his answer it confirmed my
belief that although he believed a considerable proportion (well, actually all
of them) smoked cannabis, this was not the case.

he said!

I love this story! I used to tell it at
every school I went to and it always got a great reception. I also included it
in my book. Unfortunately, there is a perception out there that, even amongst
young people, that most people have used drugs. When you take a few moments to
challenge that perception you can get some really interesting results. 

There are two words that I really dislike
that we tend to overuse when talking about alcohol and drugs – ‘all’ and
‘everybody’. If you just spend a couple of moments to think about it you know
that statements like ‘everybody does it’ and ‘all teenagers go through that
stage’ just don’t make sense. Even if everyone you knew did ‘do it’ when you
were younger (and I don’t believe that that is the case), you were most
probably part of a very unusual group. ‘Everybody’ doesn’t do it and not ‘all’
teenagers go through that stage – these generalizations need to be challenged
and unfortunately we don’t do that enough.

For some reason young people really feed
into this mythology and are their own worst enemy when it comes to reinforcing
stereotypes about teenagers and drug use. When I work with large groups of
young people I often start off a discussion by asking them what they know about
drugs and inevitably the first few statements from the floor are things such as: 

  • Drugs are everywhere
  • Everyone takes drugs
  • Peer pressure makes it really difficult for teenagers
  • Everyone I know gets drunk

It’s always interesting that this is the
response you get from the large group but when you break them down and start
taking to smaller numbers of them, you quickly find that these sweeping
generalizations simply do not hold up. Questions like ‘do you or your best
friend use drugs?’ or ‘when was the last time you saw someone use an illegal
drug?’ are often answered with ‘no’ and ‘never’. Yet the people answering this
way were the very same people who made these all encompassing statements just
moments before.

In my experience young people often provide
us with the information they think we want to hear. Now no parent will tell you
that they want to hear that young people take drugs, or drink to excess – but
it is what many people believe because that is what they have been fed by the
media and society in general. Young people pick up on this very quickly and
simply rehash these messages, even if it is not their experience. You’ve also
got to remember that teens love drama … to be honest, so do parents!
Having your child tell you that there are drugs everywhere and that there are
kids at school doing this and that can send shivers down the spines of parents,
but once they’ve been told and totally horrified, they often can’t wait to share the
stories with other parents who they know will be just as outraged!

Let’s never forget that all young people
are different. We need to acknowledge that many young people will drink alcohol
at some time during their adolescence and some may experiment with one or more
illegal drugs. However, that does not mean that we should throw our arms up in
the air and give up. This whole – “it’s a rite of passage” thing is often just
an excuse for lazy parenting … “Oh it’s a stage they all go through – we all did it” is simply not
true and it’s actually just a huge cop-out!

As a parent you need to let your child know
where you stand in regards to alcohol and drinking behaviour and the use of
illegal drugs. During adolescence, young people form their opinions and values
system around a whole pile of issues, including alcohol and other drugs. Letting
your teenager know how you feel about sensitive topics and, most importantly,
explaining your viewpoints clearly without judgment is not only going to assist
them to develop positive values but also strengthen your relationship with your

Looking for information or support services on alcohol or drugs?

If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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