What ‘Friends’ Will Your Teen Hang Around This School Year? Why You’d Better Know Now
David McCarthy’s descent into heroin began all the way back in middle school when he and some friends started smoking marijuana, or so the story goes; by high school, David and his friends had added Oxycontin to their drug-using repertoire.
It was David’s girlfriend who, along with another high school friend, regularly supplied David with heroin.
“He wanted a girlfriend so desperately,” David’s mother told The Washington Post. “I hardly knew her; he didn’t bring her home. He’d decided I was the enemy.”
“We call her the angel of death,” the local police chief said of the girlfriend.
Befriending that angel of death in David’s teenaged years eventually proved fatal. At the age of 29, he died from an overdose in his bedroom one evening as his parents, unaware, were grilling steaks downstairs.
Strong Links Between Teen Friendships and Addiction
David’s tragic story is not unusual, insofar as it speaks to how friendships can, as early as middle school, shape a teen’s chances of falling prey to substance abuse and addiction. A wealth of research points to strong links between a teen’s friendships and his or her drug use and suggests that friends exert a major influence on a teen’s propensity to use drugs for the first time — and to keep using drugs at the risk of developing an addiction.
For one thing, “birds of a feather” not only “flock together” but “stay together,” according to newly released findings of a study at Florida Atlantic University, showing that while a great number of teen friendships are fleeting and short-lived (usually lasting a year or less), the relationships that do endure do so on the basis of the degree of similarity between friends. In other words, if teens have close friendships that last longer than a year or two, it’s because they and their friends are very similar in their recreational interests and behaviors.
The takeaway? If your teen has a close, long-lasting friendship with someone who has a drug problem, chances are your teen has a drug problem, too.
How a Teen’s Friends Influence Drug, Alcohol Use
Another study, this one conducted in 2014 by researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found links between friendship intimacy, friends’ drug use and teens’ propensity to self-medicate negative emotions with drugs.
Such studies join a stockpile of decades of previous research into how a teen’s circle of friends can influence his or her behavior toward drugs and alcohol. Those findings include the following:
- One of the greatest risk factors for substance abuse is drug-using peers.
- There is a clear causal link between associations with peers who use drugs, alcohol or cigarettes and teen substance abuse; by contrast, friendships with peers engaged in prosocial behaviors (actions that show concern for the welfare of those around them) really do encourage abstinence from drugs.
- The higher a teen perceives the level of support from their drug-using friends, the greater the likelihood that he or she will begin using drugs.
- Family dysfunction, a teen’s perception of social acceptance and depression are some key factors that affect the degree to which a teen’s friends can exert negative influence (by encouraging risky behaviors like drug use).
Knowing who your teen’s friends are this school year will help you protect your child from the dangers of drugs, alcohol and a potentially lethal addiction. Here’s how:
- You’ll be better able to gauge your teen’s level of exposure to drugs and alcohol, whether he or she is at risk of substance abuse, and to take appropriate precautions, such as instituting boundaries around interactions with certain friends.
- You’ll be able to identify which friendships are better for your teen than others, and proactively encourage the beneficial ones.
- You’ll get to know your own child better, thus building a stronger parent-child relationship (which is critical to offsetting the negative influence of peer relationships).
- You’ll be faster at getting your teen the drug and alcohol addiction treatment he or she needs and quicker on the draw if/when a relapse occurs.
- “Adolescents’ and Their Friends’ Health-Risk Behavior: Factors That Alter or Add to Peer Influence,” Journal of Pediatric Psychology
- “Friendship Intimacy, Close Friend Drug Use, and Self-Medication in Adolescence,” National Institutes of Mental Health
- “New adolescent friendship study confirms ‘birds of a feather flock together – stay together,’ ” Science Daily
- “And then he decided not to be,” The Washington Post
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