So. You suspect your teenager has decided to take a walk on the wild side. You’ve seen the warning signs. New friends, loss of interest in old activities, missing curfew, glassy eyes, funny breath, unpredictable moods, and falling grades. Add them all up, and the sum total is nothing good.
Which means you more than suspect. You know something’s up: they’re abusing alcohol, smoking marijuana, or getting into prescription drugs like Oxycodone, Xanax, or Adderall. Maybe your teenager has already been in treatment for alcohol or drugs, or maybe this is brand new behavior and you haven’t taken decisive action yet because you don’t know exactly what to do.
But you do know one thing: the upcoming Spring Break scares you. Or perhaps it’s doing more than that. It’s totally freaking you out. You’d much rather your teenager be under adult supervision all day than be at loose ends for an entire week. You’d prefer they have their after-school activities to keep them busy and out of trouble. You think all that time on their hands can only lead to more experimenting, more partying, and more of everything you don’t want for your them.
You’re right to be concerned. A teenager with time on their hands and a peer group that’s experimenting with alcohol and drugs is a recipe for disaster. Concerned, yes: terrified and freaking out, no. Because – unless your teen is already eighteen – you’re still in charge and you still get to decide how they spend their week off school.
There are plenty of things you can do to keep Spring Break from breaking your teenager.
Spring Break Tips for Parents of At-Risk Teens
There’s an old saying about working with teens. We can’t remember where it comes from, but the basic idea applies to this situation:
“Get them up early, run them hard, and after dinner they’ll be too tired to do anything but fall asleep. Even if they had every intention of sneaking out and running amok.”
Keep them too busy to get in trouble.
Granted: some of you may not be able to take off work for the week. Some of you may be planning to go out of town without your teenager, while some of you may be planning to head to the beach with the whole family – but those plans don’t include 24/7 monitoring of a teen who’s now more interested in partying than bodysurfing.
You can change plans – especially if your teen is at-risk. This is a delicate time. This may be the year you need to figure out something new for your teen to do that takes up the entire vacation. This may be the year your Spring Break means you stay at home and make sure your teenager doesn’t go off the rails. It can mean all or none of the above.
What we’re saying is this: you’re not at the mercy of Spring Break.
Here are five things you can do to make sure Spring Break is a good time, rather than the beginning of a slippery slope to unmanageable addictions:
- Talk to Your Teen. Open, honest, and direct communication is the most powerful tool in your toolbox. If you haven’t had the talk about what you see – the new friends, the behavioral changes, and the other warning signs – now is the time. Tell your teen what you’re worried about. You may be surprised at how far this conversation can take you.
- Talk to Other Parents. It’s likely there are other parents in you peer network who’ve had to handle a near-identical situation. Take them out to coffee or lunch and pick their brains about how they handled their teen on Spring Break.
- Talk to a Professional. You may not want to admit or unload your concerns with your peers – that’s understandable. We all have our various levels of comfort disclosing personal and family matters with outsiders. If that’s the case, then find a therapist, psychiatrist, or counselor who specializes in at-risk teens or adolescent substance use disorders. They’ll have ideas and point you toward local resources – and probably recommend counseling.
- Intentional Family Vacation. Take your family vacation in a place where there is little to no chance of your teen having access to alcohol or drugs. Hint: not a resort or a big Spring Break tourist spot. We’re talking about camping. We’re talking about trips to foreign countries where they’ll be busy from sunup to sundown. That way, you can bake the 24/7 supervision into the vacation, and you won’t have to do any extra planning.
- Alternative Spring Break. This idea can be your piece de resistance. It can kill all the birds with one stone. It can be an elegant solution that addresses all the issues simultaneously. You can participate or not. It can happen at home or abroad. An Alternative Spring Break is:
- A week-long volunteer or service learning trip. Options include programs such as: Habitat for Humanity, United Way, Global Volunteers, A Broader View, and Global Leadership Adventures, and GlobeAware.
- A week-long Adventure Travel Trip. Options include: Outward Bound, National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Rustic Pathways, and Williamsburg Adventures.
Plan for the Future
When you make plans for this Spring Break with your at-risk teen in mind, remember you’re not just planning for this week, this month, or this school year. You’re planning something that will impact the rest of their lives. That’s why it’s important to put it in perspective. This may well be a turning point – and you can guide the direction in which your teen turns. That’s why planning this year’s Spring break with care is vitally important.
We want to make sure you understand on more critical fact: if your teen is really in trouble with alcohol or drugs, then one uber-programmed Spring Break week is not going to solve the problem. Serious substance use disorders require serious intervention, and the best way to do that is with the help of a licensed and certified mental health professional or a fully accredited substance use treatment program. Spring Break programs are a great way to break your kid out of a rut, get them away from negative influences for a while, and remind them there are plenty of ways to have fun and enjoy life without using drugs or alcohol. These programs can be life-changing, but they are no substitute for real treatment. A teen with a legitimate substance use disorder will likely need a professional therapist, an outpatient program, an intensive outpatient program, a partial hospitalization program, or a residential treatment program.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.