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TELL CITY - Communities used to reinforce what parents taught their children, according to a man who presented free workshops on teenage substance abuse last week.
In the last of three presentations May 22 at First United Methodist Church in Tell City, psychologist George R. Ross said he got drunk and wrecked a car as a teenager. He heard from several members of his community, he said, including his employer, barber and minister.
"They all had the same message," he told the 13 listeners in the church basement. Most of them were people actively working substance-abuse issues, like representatives of Education on Drugs and Alcohol and Agape Recovery Ministries.
Today's teens "need more chaperones, more parental involvement and more time with like-minded adults because the dangers they face are more severe than ever," said Ross, a chemical-dependency counselor who served as founding director of substance-abuse programs in three cities in Kentucky and Florida.
Since 1992 he has taught at the college level while serving as a psychologist in private practice.
Ross' final discussion of the day was titled, "How Can You Tell If Your Normal Teenager is Normal?" but focused, as did his earlier presentations, on teenage substance abuse.
"Teenagers are a very interesting lot," he said. "Their brains don't fully develop until they're 22 years old."
That's when their frontal lobes, which Ross called "discernment centers" become fully developed, he said. That's a problem because "in schools, they don't teach that drug use is wrong, but a choice," he said. Giving youngsters that kind of option "assumes a high level of discernment" on their part, he explained, that given the proper information, they'll make informed choices.
He listed several other erroneous assumptions:
I can drink and use drugs and tobacco as long as I want with no harm to myself
If I do develop a problem, treatment can fix me
Drinking and using drugs and tobacco are normal, safe rites of passage
The community at large accepts the use of alcohol, drugs and tobacco by teens as normal
"Those are our assumptions, as proven by the hundreds of parents who should be here tonight," Ross said. "We lie to ourselves as parents by saying our kids are experimenting with drugs. The first couple of times is an experiment.
After that, they're drug users. The experiment may happen for several reasons. Availability is No. 1. They do it because it's there to do."
"Don't you think the problem is parents don't have control of their kids any more?" an audience member asked. "When Dad said to do something, we knew we had to do it."
"I take exception with the word control," Ross answered. "We never had it. We can have a high level of influence. Parents have more influence than they think."
Peer influence was the next reason he said youngsters turn to mind-altering substances.
"People are usually influenced by someone to do drugs," he said before asking the audience, "how many people use Tide (laundry detergent)? Who turned you on to it?"
"The people who are influencing kids to do drugs aren't sleazy old men," Ross said. The first few times someone uses illegal drugs, he added, they feel the benefits. Consequences may not show up for months, "so if you tell them doing drugs will bring bad consequences, you lose credibility."
By the time the consequences emerge, Ross pointed out, the user is hooked.
Parents can impose consequences, he said, but they should be immediate and effective.
He suggested a 24-hour prohibition from any electronic devices such as telephones, televisions, music players and cars for a first offense, and doubling it for a second infraction, for example.
Other reasons teens may start using drugs, the psychologist said, include adult acceptance, permission and even promotion.
"We don't need more DARE programs for kids, but for parents" he said, referring to Drug Abuse Resistance Education programs offered in schools. "You need to dare to be a parent. You need to redefine getting high for what it is - brain poisoning."
Effective parenting means setting expectations, boundaries and examples for children, Ross said, and being involved and encouraging. Also important is providing a drug- and alcohol-free environment.
Boundaries, he explained, are "clearly defined limits with appropriate rewards and punishments."
"The No. 1 way people learn is through vicarious reinforcement - watching what other people do," he said. "I used to believe it's the quality of time you spend with children, not the quantity, but if you want to have teaching moments, you have to spend a lot of time with them."
In Ross' mind, substance abuse is the No. 1 threat facing the country, and group efforts are needed to thwart it.
"Communities, families and youth need to team up," he said, "to help kids grow up free of the use of chemicals to get high."
In addition to his own Web site at www.georgerross.com, Ross recommended parents go to http://brainplace.com, "the Web site of a neuroscientist that shows several parts of the brain go dead with drug use."