When I was a teenager in New York City, hanging out with skater kids, hard core punks, metalhead dudes, and goth girls, all my friends smoked weed. All of them. Some drank and others dropped acid, but pot was certainly the most accessible drug around. I, on the other hand, abstained completely.
What can I say? I was the oldest sibling of four, the one who listened to his very strict parents when they said not to do drugs, and worried about “getting caught.” Plus, when I was even younger, during the urban crack epidemic of the ’80s, there was the U.S. government’s highly publicized War on Drugs, with the famous “Just Say No” campaign and other widespread propaganda molding my perspective.
The other day, I texted my friend Steve, who smoked weed alongside others in our social circle back when we were teenagers. I asked what he remembers of my anti-drug stance.
“We had to keep weed out of your sight so you wouldn’t be disappointed in us,” Steve texted back. “It was annoying and cute at the same time ... though more annoying, lol.”
Yeah, I was that kid.
Maybe I dodged a bullet, because experimenting with any kind of illicit substance is always at least a little bit risky — which is part of the allure at that age. And I’ve lived with anxiety and depression since adolescence, if not earlier, so I could have reacted particularly poorly to drugs, even weed which can worsen anxiety. However, after years of reflection — and having never smoked weed at all, ever — I’ve held firm that my straight-edge status led to some grave feelings of alienation that I experienced as a teen, something that’s never completely gone away.
Such a sense of isolation at that developmental stage can be detrimental. Studies show that, during adolescence, peer relationships become extra-important and increasingly intimate, partly because individual independence grows throughout this period of rapid emotional development. Perhaps my forced reluctance to partake in drugs was, in some ways, more harmful than whatever experimentation I might have engaged in.
My straight-edge status led to some grave feelings of alienation that I experienced as a teen, something that’s never completely gone away.
“Adolescence is basically defined by the ability of the child to separate more from his or her parents,” says Silvia Welsh, a psychologist and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, who specializes in adolescent counseling. “In that sense, peers become way more important than they ever did.” Peer relationships help teens build interpersonal skills, which aid in the forging of friendships and romantic partnerships later in life. Even if a teen merely perceives their own social success, that can result in better social functioning over the long term.
Reflecting on my experience, I’ve often wondered if there is a compromise that parents and teens should come to on the drug question, where parents let their kids “experiment,” if only so they could better fit in with peers who may be indulging as well. Could letting teens try drugs actually be one of the healthier things parents can do for them?
It’s a radical idea, but we’ve seen that across generations teens will rebel, often by using drugs. Laying the groundwork for honest conversation between parents and kids about drugs doesn’t sound like a totally bad thing.
Parents who are on the stricter side of the spectrum run the risk of raising a child who will not be as socially high-functioning as an adult, Welsh says, compared to kids of other parents who give them greater freedom. “They’re more self motivated. They’ll do better in college. They do better in life,” Welsh says, of the latter teen group. “They feel that their parents trusted them, and so they’re not as likely to want to disappoint them or act out against them, so it just carries forward.”
I don’t want to dump on my parents completely — they taught me about integrity, taking responsibility, and instilled in me a fairly profound work ethic, helping me sustain careers as a teacher, for a time, and now as a writer. But in my teen years, even though I was on the Honors Society in school, a student athlete, and retained part-time jobs, I did not feel as though I was trusted by them. I refused to smoke with my friends, and I’d still be subjected to eyeball scans for telltale redness when I got home. And that hurt. I also think it led me to question my feelings and impulses as an adult, which aided in my depression. If my parents couldn’t trust me as a kid, how could I trust myself as an adult?
I did rebel in other ways, like periodically skipping the last couple classes in the school day to hang out with my stoner friends and listen to Pantera, among other minor indiscretions. But ultimately, why didn’t I decide to get high?
Welsh — who’s not my therapist and only worked with the tidbits of information I’m offering here, to be fair — thinks that on some level I didn’t want to fit in with those kids, most of whom didn’t take school seriously, weren’t concerned about cultivating a meaningful career down the road, and were a little too temperamental at times. I remember one kid outright murdering a pigeon in front of us by striking its head with the silver chain he’d detached from his wallet — remember those?
Though I skipped class once in a while, I still highly valued learning, and knew I’d go on to college after high school and eventually start a career. (A couple of my friends from those days appear to have fairly well-adjusted lives, however, based on their Facebook family photos with their partners and children, and “Life Events” touting career achievements. It’s important to point out here, then, that all this discussion is, to a degree, a generalization.)
Even with all the potential damage that overprotective parenting can do to a teen, Welsh believes parents of teens, especially those in later stages, should never condone drug or alcohol use, because ultimately their duty is to protect their children from any harm. Parents must also set boundaries to ensure their child’s safety and “be models that children can respect and look up to.”
But in spite of parental duties and some of the dangers in experimentation, Welsh sees it as “odd for a kid to go through high school and never have tried drinking or smoking because there’s something that that says about the child [having] a fear of a loss of control.”
Such an outlook rings true to me, given my now decades-long struggle with anxiety. And to take that a step further, if adolescence is all about detaching his or herself from their parents, I also think that on some level, I knew that if I’d done drugs — considering the virulence behind my parents’ instructions not to partake — I’d be cutting the cord for real this time. Doing drugs meant racing toward adulthood and independence, and stripping myself of my innocence. That can’t be an enticing proposition for an anxious teen.