Safe Teens & Sane Parents

Elizabeth Driscoll Jorgensen knows a lot about teenagers. She’s a nationally recognized expert in substance abuse counseling, with an excellent track record of engaging resistant teens and motivating them to change. She’s also hilarious.

Last week, Jorgensen gave a talk at St. Luke’s for parents of teens, aptly entitled Delay Your Gray. She admitted that, while parenting a teenager isn’t always pretty, it helps to keep in mind that you’re the grownup. According to Jorgensen, children need two things in order to be happy and healthy: to know they are loved for who they are and that there are limits to their behavior.

Children need and want time with their parents, but Jorgensen—who frequently polls teens —tells us that in high-achieving families, teens often feel that this time turns into a to-do list of academics and athletics. With so little “quality time” together, it’s no fun to be the party pooper. But the reality is that love and limits go hand in hand, especially when it comes to substance abuse. She asked us to face facts:

  • Connecticut has a 20% higher binge drinking rate than the national average.
  • Affluence is a risk factor for drug and alcohol use.
  • It’s “cool” to smoke and even deal weed—the stigma is gone. 
  • Median age for first-time pot use is 12.9.
  • The plastic adolescent brain is permanently changed by cannabis.
  • The later the “first use” of alcohol and marijuana, the less impact on the cognitive functioning of the adult brain, and the lower the chance a person will experience substance abuse in adulthood.
Liz Jorgensen at St. Luke's

Liz Jorgensen at St. Luke’s

According to Jorgensen, teens’ brains are wired for learning through new experiences, and not for understanding consequences. They aren’t always aware of the dangers of riding in a car with a friend who is drunk or high. To them, smoking pot for the first time or swallowing a pill is all about now.

As parents, we always have to think about consequences and impact. And we have to do that while our teens’ emotions are running just about as hot as they ever will.

Jorgensen reminds us it is possible. Teens should test their wings but need to be aware of the no fly zone. This means being the one who says yes maybe you can go to a friend’s house, as long as I meet the friend, and I know that his or her parents will be there. It means being the one who agrees to rescue that child any time of day or night as long as they promise to call. It means saying all this calmly, even if your teen throws a tantrum.

Jorgensen likes to wear a badge that identifies her as the “world’s meanest parent.” She wears it proudly, and often passes out extra badges to the parents she counsels. I applaud her refusal to go along with the “we all partied at their age” justification. She pushes back hard on that thinking and warns that lack of limitations often leads to substance abuse and other coping issues. She sees it firsthand every day.

Among Jorgensen’s many quotable lines was my favorite: “Being fired by an emerging adult child is a sign of success as parents.” May we all get fired one day.

Below are the slides from Jorgensen’s presentation, including much of the data. My personal thanks to our Parents’ Association for bringing Liz Jorgensen and her invaluable parenting wisdom to the Hilltop.

Just hit pause to spend time on a slide.


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