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When Kids Are Making Risky Choices

How Parents Can help kids who are making risky choices about alcohol and other drugs

Substance use that can result in harm to self or others — or trouble with the law — is risky behavior.

Peers and parents can help students who are making risky choices around alcohol and other drugs by recognizing signs of problem use, responding with compassion and making an effective referral when appropriate. Risky use is determined by what is used and how it is used, whether it can result in dangerous outcomes, harmful activities done while under the influence and illegal activities.

Health emergencies can result from drinking too much alcohol too fast, mixing alcohol with prescription drugs or illegal drugs, or using prescription drugs for non medical purposes or at higher doses than prescribed. Some street drugs are laced with potent substances (for example, fentanyl) that can be deadly. Driving, operating machinery, swimming, boating or even using the stairs can be risky when under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Sex under the influence can also be harmful, as it is less likely to be safe or consensual. To avoid trouble with the law, young people will want to avoid underage use of alcohol or marijuana and avoid misuse, use or sale of illegal drugs and prescription drugs. Alcohol and other drugs impede judgement, which can result in illegal behaviors such as getting into a physical fight, indecent exposure, having an open container where it is not allowed or non consensual sex.

Having an open container where it isn’t legal or providing alcohol to someone who is underage can result in serious legal trouble. Substances are sometimes used to cope with life’s challenges. This might look like using alcohol or drugs to avoid dealing with feelings or situations (for example, feeling heartbroken, angry, empty or putting off difficult conversations).

Other unhealthy coping strategies include over- or under eating, sleeping too much, self-isolation, risky sexual behaviors or speeding while driving a vehicle, among other things. Sometimes even a healthy activity can become an unhealthy way of coping. One example is excessive exercise. A good workout, a brisk walk or run can result in a clear head and help your student think of the best ways to approach a challenge. However, if excessive exercise prevents your student from dealing with the situation, then it is a barrier to positive outcomes and not as healthy an option. Healthy coping strategies calm the body and mind or engage the person in finding solutions. This can include breathing for relaxation, getting out in nature, getting enough sleep, physical activity, journaling and mindful meditation. Helping your student take control of stressful situations can direct their activities toward problem solving, which is a great way to deal with the stressors they encounter.

To help someone cope healthfully, try this formula: recognize, respond, refer.

Recognize signs that someone is struggling, such as saying they are distressed, excessive fatigue, missed responsibilities, verbal aggression, erratic performance, tearfulness, feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, deteriorating quality of work or physical appearance.

Respond by expressing concern in a nonjudgmental and empathic manner. Let them know you care. Use “I” statements like “I am here for you.” Avoid clichés like “this will get better” or “you’re OK.”

Refer them to get help if they express thoughts of self-harm, suicide or harm to others or they are having trouble controlling their behaviors.

Wellness.asu.edu provides information on health topics, online wellness classes, access to programs and resources available through ASU. ASU students can use ASU resources for counseling, health, fitness and wellness, which can be accessed on wellness.asu.edu. It’s important for us to recognize our roles as peers and parents as one that builds a caring community. This awareness fosters a sense of responsibility that can influence what we notice and how we respond to students’ struggles. By recognizing, responding and referring when needed, we can help students reach their academic goals and succeed in life.


By// Dr. Karen Moses, Director of Wellness and Health Promotion at Arizona State University

Dr. Karen Moses is the director of wellness and health promotion at Arizona State University. She has provided leadership in ASU health promotion and wellness initiatives, programs and services for over 30 years. She is dedicated to improving health and reducing risks to support college students’ success now and in their future lives and to reduce health disparities in their communities. Dr. Moses has served as principal investigator on many grants and contracts, and conducts research on student health behaviors. She has provided leadership in several national, regional and state professional associations and is a frequent speaker at professional conferences.

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