As Oregonians, we gladly welcome the summer sunshine. However, summer can be an important time to keep the lines of communication open with your kids. Unfortunately, teens can use their extended free time to increase their alcohol and drug experimentation.

I grew up in Lake Oswego, and as teens we repeatedly had easy access to cars, houses and money, which led to dangerous situations at times. I now work as a mental health consultant in Portland’s maximum security jail. I all too often see teens coming in with substance abuse charges. A 2012 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 6.5 percent of high school seniors smoke marijuana daily, up from 5.1 percent just five years ago. Although marijuana has been viewed as a safer drug and has recently been legalized in Washington, it can have long-term effects. I frequently see a significant decrease in motivation with teens using marijuana, leading to a decrease in academic achievement, thus negatively impacting future goals. There is also the gateway drug argument, which I tend to agree with.

Along with marijuana, prescription medications are popular with teens. The partnership at found a 33 percent increase in prescription drug abuse in teens since 2008. Prescription drug abuse includes pain killers (Vicodin, oxycodone) and stimulants (Ritalin, Adderall). Access to prescription medications may be the easiest for teens. Family and friends often unknowingly provide these drugs through unlocked medicine cabinets.

So, what to do? First, you need to be able to determine if your child is at risk or currently using. In my experience, parents who spend uninterrupted, regularly scheduled time with their children have the best odds of discovering early drug use. Does your child come home smelling like alcohol, cigarettes or marijuana? Smell your child. It may sound odd, but it works. In 2011, Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience found changes in behavior, friends, motivation and appearance as early warning signs of potential drug or alcohol abuse. Obviously, teens show some erratic behavior by nature, but get to know your child’s baseline so you can be aware of any deviations. offers some advice. Some of its main points are “it’s not about you — it’s about your child.” You can spend some time talking about your past experiences with alcohol and drugs, but don’t rehash stories of your youth. It is also important to listen to your child and refrain from doing all of the talking. Regardless of what comes up, stay calm. Your child is looking to you for support and advice; show them that you are someone who will remain (mostly) rational when they come to you with questions and concerns.

If you discover your child is using alcohol or drugs and needs help, there are many local resources. Private counseling and outpatient or inpatient treatment can help get your child back on track and closer to their full potential. Try to remember that kids make mistakes and their brain has not yet fully developed. The most important thing to do if you discover your child is engaging in substance use is to take action. Parents who use denial simply allow the use to snowball into a larger, more serious problem. So soak up the sun this summer, but don’t forget to smell your child, too.

Teal Bohrer has a master’s degree in addiction counseling from Lewis & Clark College and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in counseling education from Oregon State University. Bohrer sees youths and adults for a variety of issues in her private practice.

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