With pressure to succeed, many Beach Cities teens turn to drugs, alcohol
by Carley Dryden, Manhattan Beach News
How well do Beach Cities parents know their teenagers?
In many cases, not well.
Hermosa Beach psychologist Greg Allen, who works as a therapist and substance abuse counselor for South Bay teens, hears about it every week: the car accidents, the drug overdoses, the arrests, the fights. Often, parents don’t.
“It’s really alarming and scary and upsetting,” he said.
It’s no secret that Beach Cities students are held to a higher standard than most and feel pressure to succeed. Many plan or are expected to attend Ivy League colleges.
“Kids used to get into drug use because of peer pressure, to fit in with friends. Now it’s trying to cope with stress,” he said. “Society doesn’t have a lot of healthy ways to blow off stress, so they turn to substance abuse, fast driving … They’re excited to try something dangerous.”
Many local parents turn a blind eye, pledging to instead “fight the big fights,” or find it hard to accept that students from this area can get into that kind of trouble.
“Kids in higher socioeconomic areas actually get in more trouble,” Allen said. “They have more income, more availability to different types of drugs and, because they’re bright, they can fool their parents better.”
Allen, local attorney George Bird, Manhattan Beach School Resource Officer John Loy and Sandi Conley from the Beach Cities Health District will talk to parents about these issues and ways to identify warning signs next Wednesday, March 28, at the “State of Our Teens” discussion in the Manhattan Beach Library.
The talk could be called Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Bird said, “without the rock ‘n’ roll.”
“It’s really alcohol, drugs and sex,” he said.
Bird, a 30-year criminal attorney, handles a great deal of juvenile cases in the area and discovered a startling statistic a couple weeks ago.
“Last year in the South Bay we lost nine between the ages of 16 and 20,” he said. “Nine. From alcohol, drugs or motor vehicle accidents.”
Bird credits the availability of illegal substances, the speed of the cars local youngsters have access to and the feeling of invincibility, all paired with the stress to achieve and the economic realities the parents are facing.
“I hear all the time, ‘Oh, but they’re good kids,’ and they come into my office with two or three grams of cocaine,” he said. “My mission is to encourage the communication already going on between the parent and child.”
Allen said a lot of parents in the Beach Cities are hands-on and many families function well, but students still outsmart their parents.
Allen and Bird plan to hold similar talks throughout the South Bay to connect with as many parents as possible.
“There is no more pressing concern that we have than the health and well-being of our children,” Bird said. “When the child dies, the hole created in the hearts of family members will never be filled. Anything that I can do to prevent another death in the South Bay, I’m going to do.”
THE DARK SIDE OF THE PENINSULA
The good news is that 20% of the students in the Palos Verdes high schools are not taking drugs or drinking alcohol. Are we prepared as a community and a country to deal with the other 75% who are drinking and 35% who are taking drugs? At a California Crime Prevention Officers conference nearly 15 years ago, the featured speaker from the California Attorney General’s Office asked the audience what would be the worst scourge in our country’s future. Most guessed correctly – drugs. At that time law enforcement, governmental agencies, parents and schools were seriously concerned and promoted all kinds of programs to fight back, including DARE and SANE. In 1996 an Orange County judge speaking to a group of law enforcement officers asked, “Who here feels our country is in better shape today than five years ago, in regards to drug use and abuse and all the crime and misery that goes with it?” Not a single person raised a hand. And if you asked any law officer the same question today, you would probably get the same reaction. Most programs set up years ago haven’t worked. Drugs are easier than ever to obtain. Kids have become more accepting of drugs. Parents have become more complacent. And the United States has the distinction of being one of the highest consumers of drugs in the world; allowing dealers to continue making millions as the ever growing supply of young people are ready and willing to continue to fill their coffers.
Despite valiant efforts to contain this scourge, we have witnessed the horrible toll that drugs and attendant violence have made in our communities, destroying countless families, lives and friends with a resultant explosion of youth perpetrated crime. Substance abusing athletes, entertainers and celebrities are taken more seriously as role models than parents. From sea to shining sea, including the hamlets of rural America, drugs are silently tearing up the very fabric of our communities. Where does our little community of Palos Verdes fit in?
We asked the question of two entities both of whom see the dark side of drug activity – law enforcement and the medical side of substance abuse. Dr. Greg Allen and CORE Deputy John Despot routinely see the results of the drug culture in RPV. Both have nothing to hide, no axes to grind, no one to answer to, and the same goals – to prevent substance abuse and help those that can be helped. Both concur that drug activity hasn’t gotten any better, and maybe is worse. They indicate that Peninsula substance abuse is similar to the National statistics. That is some 20 percent of freshmen are drinking and using marijuana. By their senior year, 75% are drinking regularly, enough to get drunk, and 35% do other drug activity.
Both indicated how easy it is to get drugs on the Peninsula. “Kids here just ask around. Everyone knows a friend of a friend who can get drugs for kids within a day. They’re available at parties in nice houses, behind gates, and on campus. Kids have money. $10 to $15 a day can get kids a nice high.” Despot says, “At the beginning of the school year we start canvassing school areas around campus before, during and after school. We watch for loitering and suspicious activity during daytime curfew and after school at Peninsula Center juvenile hangouts. We go for the dealers as well as the users. We do our best work under cover as we can get closer to the criminal activity. Over the last 8 years we have watched drug transactions take place within 20 feet of us, often in the Peninsula Center parking lots. We’ve seen drug overdoses right in front of us that have resulted in death.”
When asked who is doing what drugs at what age, the answers were eye-popping. Gateway drugs are those drugs people are first exposed to and experiment with. The traditional gateway drugs are alcohol, marijuana and tobacco. However, abuse of prescription drugs is rearing its ugly head and pushing its way into the top three. A 2005 study indicated that teens who abused prescription drugs were twice as likely to use alcohol, 5 times as likely to use marijuana, 12 times as likely to use heroin and 21 times as likely to use cocaine as teens who did not abuse such drugs.
Although easily available on hundreds of websites, kids here starting as early as 6th and 7th grade find it much easier to steal their own and their friends’ parents’ prescription pills – pain relievers, sedatives, and stimulants, such as Oxy-Contin, Vicodin, Xanax, Valium and Prozac, sometimes taking them with alcohol. Parents rarely even notice the missing drugs. This is also a generation for whom a pill is available for every ailment – from anger control to aggressiveness to depression. The CEO of the Partnership for a Drug Free America recently wrote, “Teenage abuse of prescription drugs has become an entrenched behavior that many parents fail to recognize. Clearly this is a true problem in American society”.
Younger kids are also into the extremely dangerous use of inhalants, which can cause heart attacks. Inhalants are anything that emits fumes or that is in an aerosol form that can be inhaled, such as gasoline, hair spray, Reddi-Whip, paints and cleaning fluids. Experts tell us that the scary part of pre-teen and teen substance abuse is that the teen brain is particularly vulnerable to drug abuse. The earlier a person starts, the more likely he or she is to continue doing drugs in later years contributing to the huge problem of drugs and violence in the workplace and in the home.
Alcohol is also easily available to kids on the Peninsula, freely purchased by others and given to kids as young as 13 and 14 – sometimes by parents who believe that if they let them drink at home, they won’t drink away from home, a practice Dr. Allen strongly disagrees with. It is highly addictive. Most of us know a family member or friend whose life was ruined by alcoholism. Marijuana seems to be joining beer drinking and cigarettes as a standard rite of passage for many young people. It’s easy for many parents to look the other way since they smoked it themselves and survived. Teens see it as harmless, but as Dr. Allen says, “The marijuana kids are getting now is 14 times more potent that in the ‘70’s”. He also indicates that because marijuana is now so expensive, more teens are turning to heroin, less expensive but considered the most dangerous and addictive narcotic there is.
Why do kids take drugs? Dr. Allen answers that, “Kids do drugs because they can. They’re allowed to. And they’re very clever about hiding and masking their drug habits. When they get to high school, parents back off and stop supervising.” Younger kids start abusing because they’re curious or have friends who have tried it and “it’s cool”. Peer pressure should be taken as a very serious factor, even for kids with no other risk factors. Alienation, rebelliousness, and lack of bonding either with family, friends or society start some kids off. A drug enforcement officer at a training session for a grand jury told them, “Most of these kids and now young adults started out innocently, just kids trying a joint. Then they begin to steal to get money for drugs and it escalates from there.” We see that right here on the Peninsula with kids who are now burglarizing our own residents to feed their drug habits.
Both Dr. Allen and Deputy Despot agree that parents are the first line of defense. Too many don’t take a strong enough stance and too many are in denial. A national survey that the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse just published indicated that, “Parents drastically underestimate their teenage children’s exposure to and use of drugs and alcohol. Eighty percent of parents surveyed said they did not think alcohol or marijuana were available at their teens’ parties. But over half of the teens who attended those parties said these drugs were available.” The Center’s President said that substance abuse increased with drug availability and those parents, many of whom take the attitude of, “not my child”, were often unaware of the problem and sometimes enabling it. Ninety-nine percent said they would not allow their teen to serve alcohol at a party, but 28% of teens said events they went to served alcohol while parents were there.
A friend who counsels teenagers says, “Parents often refuse to take their kid to a medical clinic to have them tested for drugs when the kid shows symptoms but denies use. It takes a strong and forceful parent to do that, but it works in most cases. However, all too often, parents are afraid to act, and end up taking their kid to a hospital after an overdose, something they don’t hesitate to do. Too many parents want to be friends to their kids, not parents, and they fear their kid won’t love them anymore if they DO something. Insecurity breeds lack of discipline in the home.”
Despot recalls instances that bear this out. About 5 years ago, he first encountered and arrested a 13 year old Peninsula student for marijuana and alcohol abuse. The Mom and Dad worked full time, and the kid had minimum to no supervision after school. He began to steal from neighbors’ houses. His parents indicated they “had no control” over their 5’2”, 110 pound child. Despot suggested counseling, more supervision, involvement in after school and organized events, and more accountability when he got into trouble. The parents basically brushed him off, and said they’d take care of it. Two years later the same kid was arrested again for possession of stolen property. When asked how he’d been disciplined, he said, “I was restricted for 24 hours and that’s about it”. The parents never connected with him, he manipulated and violated them, and is now in jail for burglaries.
Another freshman, a good student, popular, with hard working parents who both worked was arrested for possession of marijuana. When the parents came to the station, they commented that, “This seems a little harsh”, when they saw their son in jail. “It was only marijuana.” Despot commented back, “This is the most important day in your kid’s life to be good parents. How you handle this when he gets out is how he’s going to handle future drug use.” The parents did everything he asked, held their kid accountable, didn’t defend his actions, didn’t back him up, and made it clear that it was 100% on him. If he screws up, he’s on his own. To this date there have been no more reported problems.
One of the ethical crises of modern parenthood for those baby boomers and X-ers, who openly participated in the drug culture of their own youth, is what to tell their kids. Do they tell the truth or do they lie? Back in the late ‘80’s, Rolling Stone did a survey of boomer parents. The conclusion was that they did a lot, regretted little, but wanted their kids to do none of it. Two-thirds had premarital sex, half used drugs, and the only serious regret was from those who drove while drunk. So their motto was, “Do as I say, not as I did”. But people in the medical profession now say the best thing to do is level with your kids about their own experience, but be prepared to say why you wish them to behave in a different way. Dr. Allen recommends that parents, “not recount every experience. Some details should remain private. Avoid providing more information than is actually being sought by your child. Ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand exactly why and what a child is asking before answering questions about your past drug use, and limit your response to that information. Parents should make it clear that they feel it was a mistake to use drugs and they hope their kids won’t have to make the same mistakes. Often parents feel guilty because of their own past use and feel this disqualifies them to speak against use now, or kids will use it against their parent’s to disarm their attempts at parenting. . However, we can learn from our mistakes and stand a strong stand now.”
Numerous polls have been made on those 20% of students who have never tried drugs. Their answers? “I stayed away from people who did drugs and associated with people who didn’t, so I had positive peer pressure.” “My parents and school and a few friends gave me strong anti-drug messages, and I said that’s not for me.” “I was afraid of the consequences, as my brother, a policeman, told me stories of what could happen”. “My parents warned us against it and said peer pressure could FORCE us to do it. The warning and the ego not to be FORCED to do anything resulted in my decision.” “I think having a police officer coming into our class and really telling us about drugs and what can happen if we use drugs, really deterred people.” But the most powerful reason that Dr. Allen sees is, “I didn’t want to disappoint my parents.”
Both Dr. Allen and Deputy Despot agree that parents must help solve these problems. Parents should supervise and monitor their children. Know what they’re doing, and who they’re with. As the legendary Gene Stallings, former Head Football Coach at the University of Alabama said at the National Sheriff’s Association Conference, “If you don’t know the names and faces of the people your kids are running around with, you’re in big trouble”. Dr. Allen says, “When you’re connecting with your kids you know what they’re doing. Kids care about their parents’ feelings. Get involved. Do things together. Join them in their lives. Continue to invest in the relationship in becoming an adult. Realize that kids have a demanding life. They have pressures to succeed in their education. They need to blow off steam and relieve the pressure, just as we adults do. Find healthy ways to deal with stress. Provide creative and fun activities for your kids, and supervise their activities.”
The longest march begins with a single step. It begins with connecting, then listening, educating, caring, learning about things yourself, setting limits, getting involved and watching for warning signs. We are sending this generation of kids out into a turbulent and challenging world. They must have the life skills and social skills to cope with clear heads and minds. What Franklin D. Roosevelt said in the ‘40’s still holds true today, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”
Gail Lorenzen – Neighborhood Watch
Dr. Greg Allen can be reached at email@example.com
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