I’m writing this note on the eve of Thanksgiving, and at the onset of our holiday season, which is filled with joy, fun, and often lots and lots of partying for teens, young (and old) adults. Since I quit drinking a couple of years ago, I’ve paid much greater attention to how we equate drinking with fun. Partying=drinking or drugging for most. Happy hour almost always includes alcohol. Even breakfast can become a boozy brunch.
While I don’t slight anyone who drinks socially and in moderation, I do question why alcohol is upheld as THE ticket to fun and adulthood, especially as I am raising kids who are fastly becoming teens. You see, I come from a loving, supportive family of intelligent, competent people who happen to also have their fair share of problems with alcohol and substances. I lost my brother to severe addiction when I was 30 (he was only 33). I have stories about relatives spending paychecks on drinking, and destroying their health with excessive alcohol use. I’ve watched friends battle alcoholism–both surviving through it and losing to it, but almost never thriving in the midst of an alcohol issue. I put away wine myself when I went through a stressful phase in my life–I just didn’t want to grow into having a problem that I couldn’t put down like so many of my relatives. Since then, I’ve studied and learned the following facts about alcohol–In short, it is a poison that is worse or as bad for us as refined sugar and junk food. There is very little that is healthy about drinking, and so much more that is harmful. Anyone who drinks excessively and progressively over time will develop a tolerance, a problem and a likely addiction to alcohol. That’s a scientific fact!
And, still, I feel that it is an individual decision that adults need and get to make on their own. I’m totally comfortable spending time with friends who drink, and carry no judgement for anyone who indulges. Yet, I do find that my opinions get stronger as I start to consider how to raise my tweens and teens in our current alcohol culture.
I often take my concerns and questions to books, and recently I read Jessica Lahey’s book, “The Addiction Inoculation.” In this book, Lahey sorts out how she aims to arm her own kids with tools for managing experiences with and decisions about alcohol and drugs. She talks about how a buzz is a quick dopamine hit, which gives us all the feels and acknowledges how we, of course, “all [humans] want to be us, but better,” which is what drinking can feel like at times.
Lahey counsels teen addicts and is in recovery herself. Thus, she’s seen the downside of what that first drink can lead to. While briefly recounting the history of how alcohol problems were squarely blamed on the person rather than the substance, Lahey also acknowledges that “adults lead and kids follow,” when it comes to drinking and drugging behaviors. And with that tenet in mind, Lahey gives some very sound advice for how we can think about preparing our kids for healthy, thoughtful decisions about alcohol and drugs. Here’s what she has to say.
- First, she advises parents to adopt the following practices when discussing alcohol and drug use with their kids–-transparency, honesty and evidence based information about drugs.
Yes, that means answering your teens’ questions about your own use! Here’s where it gets tricky–if you can’t be fully honest with yourself about your alcohol and drug use, then this part will be hard. But I have a strategy for you. You and your co-parent write down all the substances you’ve tried, the context, any pros and cons, and what you want your teen to know or learn about that substance. Discuss it and decide how you want to use that information to instill your family value and messages about alcohol or drugs.
Yes, you will need to decide on basic family values and messages, which could range from….We don’t do drugs because they are illegal, but we do drink in moderation. Drinking for minors is illegal and unhealthy……Alcohol in moderation is okay even for minors…..Experimentation is normal as long as you tell us and don’t drive under the influence……Any substance use is off limits…..We let you try alcohol or substances when we are around. Etc….….
- Second, decide explicitly on the basic messages that you both can support about substances as described above. What you then share will support that value. You can still share mistakes, yet you do it for a purpose.
- Know your facts about drugs, alcohol and addiction: Substance abuse problems are 60% genetic. Teens with addiction running in their family are 40% more likely to develop a problem. Arm you kids with knowing their family history so they can decide if they want to roll that dice.
- Know your substances: Read up on the main drugs out there and understand what they do to the brain. For example,
- alcohol increases dopamine and can damage the brain over time because it is a depressant;
- nicotine gives a dopamine hit with an immediate cognitive reward, so smokers feel “on” and stimulated;
- marijuana impairs memory by increasing gray matter volume and circumventing the pruning process, which is why thoughts and emotions slow down;
- opiates block pain (emotional and physical);
- stimulants increase attention and euphoria unnaturally which can dull natural experiences of joy;
- sedatives reduce anxiety, yet can slow all other processes including memory, cognition, energy levels and body systems;
- hallucinogens alter mental processes;
- ecstasy floods the brain with massive amounts of serotonin which promotes a false sense of connection, yet lands in depression and anxiety;
- inhalants create a big high with a fast descent emotionally and add hallucinations at times.
- Understand risk factors for addiction: including family history of addiction, environmental factors, addiction at home, trauma, toxic stress, academic failure, social isolation, untreated emotional/behavior/attention issues, early aggressive behavior (treat early!), major transitions like divorce, moves, etc, and unplanned time during summer months.
- Front Load with protective factors against addiction: Add extra support for your family including family friends, additional caregivers, coaches, aunts, uncles, tutors, extra childcare, etc. Get rid of secrets and shame. Talk openly about your family’s risk. Keep addictive substances under lock and key. Make sure your family moves and is active together. Get a pet. Have hobbies. Etc.
- Focus on Building Self-Efficacy in your Teen (“I can do it.”) Your primary tool is a loving relationship based on conflict free time spent together!!
- Use “I can’t yet,” as a bridge while your teen is still learning skills.
- Demonstrate that you believe in your child. Be authentically positive.
- Use negative feelings and emotions as signals that something needs attention or protection.
- Give honest praise.
- Be specific on what you are role modeling.
- Make sure your doctor does health screenings on problems with substances and mood/attention issues.
- Teach or promote mindfulness.
- Reframe stress as an indicator that we need to make changes and as an opportunity to build emotional muscles.
- Be an authoritative (clear, firm) parent–not permissive or punitive.
- Know which personality traits increase risk: Teens/persons who are easily bored, more angry, less active, and less engaged are more likely to have issues with substances. Work on addressing these feelings or issues little by little and one by one.
- Find a method and venue to have regular conversations: Try to find a positive flexible tone. Set aside regular time (on walks or drives, at dinner or breakfast, while shopping or traveling, wherever! ). Start early and try often.
This is a scary topic, I know! I’m a mom of tweens/teens who wants to raise her kids without the fear of losing them to addiction. Yet, this fear is like most. When faced, it can begin to be something that alerts us into positive action rather than keeps us scared and inactive. We don’t have to be perfect to raise healthy kids–yet, we do need to work on being as honest and transparent as we can authentically manage. We can also seek support and information to help us along the way. I hope this information helps you and your family define further your messages and values around substances.