Bonnie Carroll: Problematic Behavior Can Be Part Of An Identifiable Continuum – March 31, 2010

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I recently heard that we are having a problem with adolescent heroin use in Arcata. I was shocked and saddened by this news. I know some experimentation is normal, but heroin is a hard core drug and leads to significant dependency and addiction issues.

Around the same time, a family brought their 14 year old daughter into my office for counseling because she was smoking pot every day, had been smoking pot for years, and was failing almost all her classes. In the course of our assessment, the parents acknowledged their own drug and alcohol use, which included the father drinking alcohol, smoking pot and taking significant pain medication every day due to back pain.

In light of the marijuana grow industry here in Arcata and Humboldt County in general, I was left pondering the correlation between parental drug use and abuse and adolescent drug use and abuse in our community.

I know past studies have shown a significant correlation between parents smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol and their children engaging in those activities as well. So it isn’t a huge leap to hypothesize that any type of parental drug use will lead to increased adolescent use and abuse.

Although there are the exceptions: I know some people who chose not to use any drugs and/or alcohol after seeing the harmful effects that substance abuse had on their own parents.

If you are a parent who currently uses drugs, keep this in mind: you role model life choices and behaviors for your children. If you are using alcohol and/or drugs, you are role modeling that behavior for your children. If you don’t want your children to use drugs and alcohol, then maybe you should reduce your usage or stop altogether.

The most important thing is to maintain a trusting relationship with your child, so they can depend on your rational and reasonable responses when they talk to you about their life. Remember to maintain a loving and respectful relationship with your child and take the time to listen to their stories. Use teaching moments to help them understand the negative effects that drugs and alcohol can have on their developing brain and body so they can make informed choices. If you have listened to them, they are more likely to listen to you.

Try not to be discouraged if your teenager has a bad attitude, but rather look through the attitude to the real person underneath. Most teenagers adopt age appropriate behaviors that help facilitate the separation process from their parents. It is a hard time for everyone, but just remember that this too will pass. Your child really does love you and you are the most important person to them, even if that seems hard to believe sometimes.

If your child is experimenting with drugs and alcohol, don’t freak out. Longitudinal studies have found that adolescents who experiment actually have a healthier adjustment into adulthood then those who abstain completely. However, the studies also found that adolescents who used drugs and alcohol on a regular basis struggled more later in life. The regular users often experienced social alienation, poor impulse control, and more emotional distress in adulthood. Although I wonder whether or not their mental health issues were the cause or the result of the adolescent substance abuse: the age old the question of “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

Some indicators that a teenager’s alcohol and/or drug use have become a problem are: failing grades in school, cutting a lot of classes, no healthy interests or activities, regular drug and alcohol use, self harming behaviors, and uncharacteristic withdrawal from family, past friends, and past interests.

If you are concerned about your child’s behavior and think it’s time to seek some help, you may want to consider seeing a therapist in our community. The North Coast Association of Mental Health Providers has a fairly comprehensive list of local therapists. You can go to their website at to search for a therapist that will be a good fit for you.

If you have any questions of dilemmas in your own life, feel free to send them in and I’ll try to share my thoughts about them too.

Bonnie Carroll is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a counseling practice in McKinleyville. Contact her directly at