When raising my son and daughter, Annie and Jeff, I never thought about, or worried about addiction. I mean, addiction is something that happens to other people, right? People who can’t control their choices or their lives. Addiction was something I equated with old men and bored housewives, not teenagers. The kinds of things I worried about as a mom were alcohol and driving, alcohol and sex, alcohol and swimming, alcohol and overall recklessness. Not alcoholism. And I rarely worried about marijuana because marijuana’s, well, just not that big a deal… right?
Then addiction happened. When my eighteen-year old daughter first drank alcohol, she became an alcoholic almost instantly. The stoner life later followed. Then on one fateful day, she was offered cocaine at a party… only it proved not to be cocaine… but meth. And it took her immediately.
I soon learned more about addiction than I ever wanted to know.
Who knew that addiction is a disease of adolescence? That’s right. The seeds of addiction, for the vast majority of sufferers, are sown in the teenage years. Teens who begin using any drug, including the drugs alcohol and marijuana, are five times more likely to become addicts in adulthood than teens that abstain. One in six teenagers who smokes marijuana will develop dependence.
So what are we as parents to do with this knowledge? What can we do to help keep our kids safe?
Talk to your kids about drugs (duh)
Research still shows that parents remain the single most important influence in their children’s lives. Educate yourself with up-to-date information about drugs, and talk to your kids about them. Learning from you that drugs can be harmful can help to offset the low perception of harm often promoted by peers.
Zero tolerance policy
Alcohol use is not a “right”-of-passage for teenagers. Nor is marijuana use. In fact, there is no way to teach safe use of these substances because they are not safe for teens. Having a policy of zero tolerance, along with appropriate consequences, sends a strong and healthy message to young people. Forget that you may have emerged unscathed after teenage drug use. Not all are so lucky.
Know the risk factors for addiction. According to drug prevention specialists, these are the major risk factors for drug abuse and addiction:
- Family history. Substance abuse and addiction tends to run in families. While genetic predisposition for addiction does not alone determine the future of who will become addicted, it can be part of the mix.
- Mental illness. Young people with ADHD, depression, anxiety, mood disorders or schizophrenia, are at greater risk for addiction. Traumatic childhood events and experiences can also play a role in addiction. Appropriate treatment by a counselor or psychiatrist can help to diminish this risk.
- Environment. Family management problems and conflict have been identified as risk factors. Also homes where drugs are present, or friends who experiment with drugs, makes one more likely to experiment. We tend to do what those closest to us do.
- Availability. Drug prevention science teaches that use of a particular drug will increase as availability of that drug increases. This can be true not just in the home, but in the community as well. Be aware of proposed legislation in your city or state that could affect area availability.
- Early onset of use. The younger one begins drug use (including consumption of the drug alcohol), the more at risk one is for addiction. Neuroscientists now teach about the unique vulnerability of the teenage brain. Defined as ages 12 -24, this is the time when substances can wreak the most havoc and set a person up for a lifetime of use.
I once heard a neuroscientist describe the major risk factors using the analogy of swiss cheese. He said to visualize each risk factor as a slice of swiss cheese. When you press the cheese slices together, or risk factors together, addiction may be possible if enough of the holes line up.
Seek alternatives to prescription pain medications – The potential for developing dependence to prescribed pain medications, and the potential for overdose, cannot be over-stated. Just because it’s in a bottle doesn’t make it safe and these prescriptions should be a last resort for pain. Tens of thousands of deaths result each year from these prescriptions. It is also abuse of these medications, such as Oxycontin, Oxycodone, Vicodin, and Percocet, that are at the root of the current surge in heroin addiction in this country. The brain does not differentiate between prescription opioids and heroin, and the latter is the cheaper, more readily available alternative.
If a child is prescribed a pain medication for wisdom teeth removal, or any kind of medical procedure, it should be the parent who controls the dispensing and dosing. If your teen likes how the meds makes her feel, she may want to take more of it than is prescribed. It’s also known that some teenagers take what they perceive to be “their” pills to school to share with friends or to sell to others. Accordingly, once the medication is no longer needed, parents should safely destroy all left over pills. (Note: Do not flush the pills. Check on the drug disposal laws in your community.)
Lock it up
If you must have prescription pain meds in your house, LOCK THEM UP. Just as toddlers need to be protected from their curiosity about household cleaners under the kitchen sink, teenagers need to be protected from their curiosity of mind-altering substances in the medicine cabinet. Also lock up your alcohol and marijuana (medicinal or otherwise). Research shows that most teenagers first get these drugs from home, or from a friend who gets them from home. This happens more than most parents realize, and the “good” kids, the “smart” kids, and the “no way” kids are doing it too. You are not distrusting your child when you lock-it-up… you are protecting them, protecting their friends, and creating boundaries.
Don’t host drinking parties
Some parents believe that teenagers will consume alcohol regardless, and have the opinion that hosting “safe” drinking parties for them is the right thing to do. Drug prevention research reveals that this practice actually has the opposite effect. It’s enabling plain and simple, and teenage surveys reveal a perception that these parties condone underage drinking.
Keep age-appropriate curfews
When it comes to teenagers, nothing good happens after midnight. Also, the age-old wisdom of knowing where your child is, and with whom, always stands.
A goodnight kiss on the cheek can also help you assess if alcohol or marijuana have been part of your teen’s evening.
While not a conventional component of the parental arsenal to keep teenagers safe, random drug testing can be implemented should problems develop. It need not be punitive… rather, it can provide early detection of a reoccurring problem that requires intervention.
My husband and I employed many of these strategies while raising our two kids, yet one of them still developed an addiction problem. Children will make their choices and many argue that teens will experiment with alcohol and other drugs regardless of what we do as parents… and that may be true for some. But drug prevention strategies in the home can still help to mitigate damage.
I’m fairly confident that some of my daughter’s success in recovery stems from the fact that she didn’t start drinking alcohol until she was eighteen, and the other drugs came later. Her brain wasn’t as damaged as one who begins use of mind-altering substances at age twelve, which is the average age of onset for most people who later develop substance use disorder. Maybe, if we can achieve nothing more as parents than to delay the onset of use, we can improve the outcomes for many of our children.
If you’d like to learn more about risk factors, and protective factors for youth relative to substance abuse, please check out this article http://icare.ebrschools.org/eduWEB2/1000011/docs/risk_and_protective_factors.pdf.