YouthZone column: Set clear family policies to deter youth substance abuse

Lori Mueller

At YouthZone, parents tell us they are at a loss about what to do when their kids begin to vape. Whether it is flavored oils, tobacco or marijuana, vaping has reached epidemic proportions with our local youth.

Several communities have taken the lead in changing policies, which is a first step, but definitely not the last. The Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys have the highest rate of youth vaping anywhere in the state, as stated by the public health department.

Along with vaping, the number one charge against youth in 2019 is a minor in possession (MIP) charge. Anglo and Latino, male and female, Aspen to Parachute, vaping and drug and alcohol-abusing teens all find themselves in each other’s company.

Alcohol and marijuana possession compete as the number one offense. Prescription pills, meth, club drugs and cocaine follow closely behind.

Middle school is often when vaping with flavored oil begins. Starting that young can lead to setting unhealthy behaviors quickly, and the perception of harm begins to decrease. That makes the decision to change the flavored oils to tobacco or marijuana even easier.

How do we prevent kids from becoming involved with substance use, including vaping use? Many of the clients sent to YouthZone with MIP charges are asked what their family policy is on substance use.

It’s not surprising to discover that families with experimenting teens are often households without clear expectations. In fact, many of these families’ policies are vague and ambiguous and neither the parent nor the youth understand them. This is a good place to start.

Boundaries that leave no room for experimentation result in a no-tolerance family policy. Using more rigid parameters leaves no question about whether or not there is any gray area to play with. Even though no tolerance is recommended by many substance abuse counselors as well as youth and family service agencies throughout the valley, this policy requires a great deal of discussion between parents and youth.

The bottom line is that parents set these household rules because they love their children and are determined to help them understand the intrinsic dangers of using.

Begin setting any policy around substance use by first having a conversation. The goal is listening to understand, not listening to judge. Parents have the final say, but getting your kid’s input is important.

Clearly define consequences around use and non-use. Support the moments when your kids choose healthy behaviors and friends over experimenting. If they do use, deliver consequences that are clear, related and build responsibility and safety.

It is also imperative that parents seek professional help as soon as they suspect use that is out of control and before it reaches that level. This would be the best parenting.

In addition, parents often struggle with a specific family substance policy when they are users themselves. Feelings of guilt and hypocrisy make it challenging for parents who imply “do as I say, not as I do.” Research has shown that families who suffer from substance abuse have kids who are genetically more likely to develop chemical dependencies.

YouthZone can help. YouthZone’s Drug and Alcohol Prevention class is open to the public. We provide restorative services, counseling and one-on-one parenting support.

For more information on parenting your kids through the perils of vaping and substance abuse, visit us online at or give us a call at 970-945-9300.

Lori Mueller is executive director for YouthZone, a Glenwood Springs-based organization providing criminal justice diversion and youth advocacy programs from Aspen to Parachute.

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