“Man, everybody is a druggie now.”
One day last August, shortly after the beginning of the school year, my then-16-year-old son came home and said those words.
“You walk down the hallway and people will ask if you’re trying to buy,” he continued. It’s already understood what they’re selling. The restrooms are potential venues for smoking and selling marijuana. He sometimes notices that the doors are locked.
When I heard all this, my mouth dropped open and my heart did a weird fluttery thing. Research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse says nicotine, alcohol and drug use in teens actually went down during the pandemic. However, now that things are semi-normal, it seems the kids at my son’s school are back at it. Or maybe they just didn’t get the memo.
I had been anxious, albeit nervous, for my son to return to school in person. See, he’s an only child, so social distancing was especially tough on him. He attended his sophomore year online and spent a lot of time cooped up in his room with the door shut. He would watch stuff on the internet, play video games and talk to his friends through video chat and on the phone.
'You walk down the hallway and people will ask if you’re trying to buy,' he continued. It’s already understood what they’re selling. The restrooms are potential venues for smoking and selling marijuana. He sometimes notices that the doors are locked.
But still, I could see the loneliness in his face, hear it in his voice. His dad and I would force him to come out sometimes to join a family game night, watch movies with us, something. Usually, none of that went well since he obviously wasn’t really into it. I get it. He didn’t want to spend time with his old boring parents; he wanted to hang out with his friends. It was hard not having any physical interaction with anybody in his age group, he says. At one point, he told us he felt like he was going crazy and begged to go back to physical school. He said it with so much hurt that I’m surprised he didn’t drop any tears.
So for his junior year, we allowed him to go in person. But the revelation that many kids at school, including some of his friends, were getting high and drinking had me second-guessing that decision.
Since our son was younger, we’ve talked about the dangers of substance abuse. Heck, when he was 8, I searched up the “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” scrambled egg commercial from my childhood. He found it cheesy. Then we showed him the Faces of Meth project. Those photos, he said, scared him “to an insane degree.”
Still, I know things change when kids get older. I worry and imagine the worst. I consider doing random drug testing. However, that says we don’t trust him, which will ruin the openness we share. So we talk.
I ask his opinion about why he thinks so many kids are drinking and smoking. His answers: boredom, the need to fit in and the stress of the pandemic.
Although our family didn’t get sick or lose anyone to COVID-19, he feels the pandemic caused him and his peers to miss out on many things. The shutdown in 2020 prevented him from getting his first summer job. It delayed his driver’s ed course. And it got in the way of his meeting girls. Little things compared to what some others have gone through, but to teens, those things matter.
The shutdown in 2020 prevented him from getting his first summer job. It delayed his driver’s ed course. And it got in the way of his meeting girls. Little things compared to what some others have gone through, but to teens, those things matter.
My son has also shared that he and his friends talk about how they were freshmen in high school, the world shut down for a while, and now at age 17, they’re pretty much seniors who will soon be faced with tons of adult decisions. I can hear the stress. But he assures me he won’t turn to alcohol or drugs.
I ask how he handles it when they’re offered to him. He says he tells whoever it is that he doesn’t smoke, and they pass it to the next person. It’s not the intense type of peer pressure we see in the movies.
During one conversation, I asked if he’s been tempted to try anything. “I’ve thought about it, but I’ve never really been tempted,” he responded. “When I was in ninth grade, sometimes when me and my friends would be outside before school, they would talk about smoking, and I would think about it because I never tried it and thought I might like it,” he says. He went on to tell me that he thinks the long break from physical school probably prevented some kids, himself included, from trying drugs or alcohol. It gave them time to mature and figure out what’s valuable and important.
I guess that’s a silver lining, right? I’ve read so much about how the pandemic has negatively affected teens. While it’s true, the conversations with my kid have helped me see there’s been some good too. For instance, my son says he’s learned more about himself, explored more things and expanded his knowledge. He’s become more independent. He even started his own small business selling items.
Those things give me hope. Yes, I’m scared beyond belief about the smoking and drinking problem at my son’s school, but I have to trust him. We’ll continue to talk with him. Share our values. Listen to his stress and struggles. And keep our eyes open. As with the pandemic, we’ll get through it.