A Word to Parents on Teen Alcohol and Drug Use, by Joan Stein Jenkins, Manhattan Beach City Prosecutor

I have been a prosecutor in Los Angeles for my entire career. I have raised my children in the South Bay.  And, for the last twenty years, I have been Manhattan Beach City Prosecutor.  For the past four years, I have conducted my juvenile diversion program based on a restorative justice model. During this time, I have seen a wide array of teen problems, many of which are drug and alcohol related. In this context, I should like us to examine both the direct and indirect harms that can arise as a consequence of use and the ways to bring teens back on track. As both a parent and prosecutor, I believe these three assertions to be true: 

1) Trouble is equal opportunity and can come to us all.

2) As parents, we are all challenged to get our kids through high school and into the college or path of their choice, but this task is even harder if a child has a criminal record or has trauma and repercussions that can stem from alcohol and drug misuse.

3) Although there are numerous influencers on a child’s behavior and choices, parents CAN make a difference in preventing substance use, related harm, and opportunity loss.

It is so important that we protect our children, foster their education, and help them develop a mindset that allows them to steer clear of trouble. Here are five strategies to help us, as parents and as a community, do just that:

Strategy #1: Fully connect

Parents, no one needs to know all the answers, but it is critical that we set aside time to talk with our kids without distractions. 

We must be mindful of problems that can affect their wellbeing. We need to be keenly aware that many of our children regularly are confronted to some degree with peer pressure, trying to fit in, bullying in person or on social media, trying to have fun and broaden experiences without understanding safe limits. 

Strategy #2: Take responsibility for what happens in your home

Parents, let’s turn to the obvious——-much of underage drinking and drug use occurs in the homes and cars of somebody’s parents. Whether it’s just a few friends getting together, a team gathering, or a full-blown party, the parents who own the home or vehicle are ultimately responsible for what goes on there, whether they areaware of it or not. 

Strategy #3: Know you are answerable for what other kids do in your home (and vehicle) 

Even if you are totally comfortable letting your kids drink with their friends in your home, be aware that eventually, there will be kids you don't know, events you do not envision, and substances you may not ever have imagined that can enter your home. And the mantle of responsibility will rest very squarely on your shoulders and those of your children. Even if your child is a responsible kid, it just takes one other kid behaving stupidly to affect all of your lives.

Strategy #4: Be aware

Our children are barraged with opportunities for mischief.  Alcohol and marijuana can be acquired with little effort.   Fake IDs, which can simply be bought online or on the street, allow youth to easily obtain marijuana and alcohol. It is critical for parents to know that marijuana has been modified to increase the potency of THC, the intoxicant component in marijuana, to be strong enough to comfort hospice or chemotherapy patients. THC is now a low of 19% to over 40% and sometimes higher in edibles.  Portions of edibles are not always delineated and several portions can be gobbled IN ITS ENTIRETY like a CANDY BAR rather than the psychoactive substance THAT IT IS.  Of course marijuana use does not always lead to even stronger drugs, but it has been my observation that marijuana can be a gateway drug. By this I mean that the vast majority of the teens that I have encountered using prescription drugs and opioids began by using marijuana.

Strategy #5: Share with your teens why you want to help them reach their full potential, both in terms of brain development and opportunities.

Studies show that brains mature for the first 25 years of life; both marijuana and alcohol, especially with today’s binge drinking patterns, inhibit this process to one degree or another. Drugs and alcohol will not affect every child the same: sometimes there can be a slight impact, but sometimes the same amount of substance can affect another child in more intense ways or lead to circumstances with terrible repercussions.  

What do we do when trouble has transpired? We must get our children back on track so that mistakes do not lead to serious and immediate danger. And when the law is involved with criminal violations, I believe that we must know how to treat children as children. We must try to address the root of the matter, the problems at the heart of their behaviors. As City Prosecutor, I find corrective solutions to address the reasons for the teen’s problems. I have found that this approach more effectively prevents the recurrence of trouble than the traditional purely punitive approach. No one escapes accountability; however, I stress responsibility rather than shame. And, second chances are more sustainable when they are not saddled with a permanent scar of a criminal record. We successfully deal with criminal violations outside of juvenile court—through our juvenile diversion, and I address parties through our social host ordinance that places liability for the party on the parent while avoiding civil or criminal charges. 

We, collectively, have the power to unite to foster a community culture of inclusion and openness and accountability. Individually and communally, we can work towards a more positive environment that would substantially reduce our children’s alcohol and drug use and abuse.