Commentary: Teen Behavior, Through the Lens of a School Counselor

Johnny doesn’t follow curfew any longer, his grades are dropping and his circle of friends has changed. He seems to be depressed and has lost weight. He doesn’t seem to care about the things he used to and for some reason, has begun stealing money from family members. What’s worse, you suspect that one of your old prescription bottles is missing from your medicine cabinet, but you can’t be certain. Is this typical teenage behavior or is it something more?

Teens have had access to illegal drugs and alcohol for decades. It’s been glorified in movies, music lyrics and music videos, and many teens feel you have to do it to be accepted. However, teens are finding different ways to get high, one of which is prescription drug use. Prescription drug use continues to grow among teens across the country, and this may be in part due to the mindset behind taking prescription drugs: They are easy to get, free and because these drugs are FDA approved, they have to be safer than illegal street drugs.

So where do you begin? Where do you go if you suspect your child is using drugs and/or alcohol, or even prescription drugs? Start at school. Your child spends 7 to 8 hours at school, almost a third of their day, with school staff. These folks see and speak to your child in the hallways, classrooms, cafeteria, clubs, sporting events and school activities. School staff has the ability to see inconsistencies in performance or changes in behavior that may fly under the radar of a family member. In addition, changes in friends, personal appearance and/or personality may be more obvious to trained professionals who have been teaching, coaching or counseling a student three or four years and can speak to such discrepancies.

Schools typically have a triage system in place to assist students who may be veering off course. This triage system is set up so that coaches, teachers, cafeteria workers and administration can go to a central person to share concerns and get advice on how to handle a situation. This central person is the school counselor.

A school counselor is a master’s level, certified professional trained in a variety of areas including individual and group counseling techniques, theories of counseling and drug/alcohol use. Often times, school counselors become experts on certain trends that occur in their particular schools, such as self injurious behavior, bullying or drug abuse. And as new classes of students come each September, so do new issues. School counselors stay on top of these issues, take part in professional development opportunities and stay active with national and state school counseling organizations. School counselors have access to many resources that a parent may not have access to, and as a result, can steer a parent in the right direction to get the help they need. Programs are available in the community or in the school to help students struggling with drug/alcohol abuse, and school counselors can make connections, find financial assistance and help families throughout the entire process.

A school counselor is a first line of defense, a “go to” person and an “Oh my goodness, what should I do?” person. Parents should put their school counselor’s name and phone number on their refrigerator, in their wallet or in their cellular contact list, so that when in need of assistance, the contact information is readily available.

Where do you begin if you suspect drug/alcohol use in your child? Start at school with the school counselor. They are your sounding board, your beacon of hope, your resource connector and ultimately, your life line.

Stephanie LoBiondo, MS, North Atlantic Region VP, American School Counselor Association

6 Responses to Commentary: Teen Behavior, Through the Lens of a School Counselor

  1. John Roberts | October 11, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Great article, but is it true in every school district? In some school districts a “zero tolerance” approach is used and the student is sent to an Alternative School. As suggested by the labeling theory, once a juvenile is labeled they often live up to their assigned role. I agree with the author, at the first hint of substance abuse the matter should be addressed through a structured program of counseling that may help turn the student away from substance abuse before it is too late. Drugs are claiming too many of our young people. I hope someday we will start devoting more funding to effective prevention programs. It is time we start relying more on preventive strategies rather than reactive strategies.

    • Hiawatha Bouldin | October 15, 2011 at 8:58 am

      Well said John. Prevention is usually just discovering “why” things are occuring, not waiting until it does. Asking what do I need and asking all concerned. That means the students as well, not just the teachers, administrators. Many schools have educators and administrators that have no connection to the students or populations(cultures) they oversee. How do they really relate or know exactly what’s needed unless they can “communicate” with their school population. It’s a bit more than funds, We have capacity through people that we don’t see as valuable. A student can tell you more about what’s going on in a school than any adult. It’s their school! Talk to them. More important listen and respond.
      Alert!! You gave attention, you showed concerned, you increased social value, you lessened a risk factor, Now if we can only get everyone to try it.

  2. Debbie Vought | October 14, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    Yes, a great article; sadly, however, not every school has a school counselor. Budget cuts have forced schools to reduce and even eliminate counseling services and counselors. Communities will have to pool their collective resources to enhance prevention efforts and weave other support systems or “first line of defense” resources into the school and community cultures.

  3. Ann | October 14, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    I sometimes wish school counselors would intervene and counsel a student who has skipped class or done something displine worthy as opposed to the school using punishment. Sometimes kids just need someone to talk to to determine or learn why they do the things they do.

  4. Hiawatha Bouldin | October 15, 2011 at 8:45 am

    It’s seems to me that the “go to” person is usually just that–ONE PERSON! In many underserved communities/schools they may not have any! In most school and districts, these counselors are spread so thin. If we ever begin to think, we’d realize that the students, (not the parents) are the ones who need someone to go to. They’re asking for attention, advice, belonging, connections. We’re so busy looking for expert advice without just going to the source and asking “what’s up”? So the cycle begins: Limited answers for the wrong person (parent who should have been talking to the youth at home), student who “sees” us not communicating with them, so they look to someone (or something) else. And of course we’ll never “slam” the drug producers or the doctors who overprescribe and underscreen.
    Yes the cycle continues: Ready to stop it?

  5. Shattah206 | November 15, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    I’m late with this comment, but I see nobody else has brought it up. My dad was a school counselor. Their role is primarily to be an EDUCATIONAL/academic counselor. My dad had double Masters’ in Special Ed and Counseling and still only received cursory drug & alcohol counseling instruction. YES, they are usually interested, caring, and helpful. But do not completely place your trust in their substance abuse prevention expertise. Chances are they do not have much. In the end, your kid needs YOU to become the expert & advocate for them.

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