Friday, March 6, 2015

Talking to a Child About Drugs and Alcohol

We live in a decadent age. Children are being encouraged to define themselves by their sexuality. They are being encouraged to explore their sexuality, to seek pleasure however, whenever and wherever they want.

If children have problems they are more likely to deal with them as they have seen their parents deal with them. If they have a moment of despair or anguish, well then, they will not get to work solving the problem. They take a pill. It is effortless. It requires nothing of you. And it will make you feel better.

These instructions, baked into the culture, seem inexorably to lead teenagers to experiment with drugs, alcohol and other intoxicants.

Many teenagers would not be able to explore their sexuality, to perform sexual acts that they do not want to do, without having their brains fogged with drugs or alcohol.

And some children, enticed by the culture into dubious activities like sexting, are too young to know how to deal with the attendant shame. They numb their emotions through drugs, alcohol, and pills.

Parents are rightly concerned. They might have used drugs themselves. They might have voted to legalize marijuana. They might allow children to drink at parties in their home.

But, once they discover that the situation has gotten out of control, they panic. They do not know what to do or what to say.

Jessica Lahey writes in the New York Times:

At a recent school event, a mother asked me how she could help her son who had begun drinking and taking drugs. “There must be something I can say that will make him listen,” she implored, hoping I could help her find the magic words that would make her son face his escalating substance abuse problem.

Among the different suggestions, the best comes from David Sheff, author of two books on his son’s drug addiction.

Sheff wrote to Lahey:

The research shows that for a conversation to make a difference, it must rely not on scare tactics — dire warnings and exaggerated fears — but facts. The goal is to get kids to think. We must acknowledge that it’s confusing and there aren’t easy or black-and-white answers. We can use a kind of motivational interviewing and get kids thinking about why they may be tempted to use — the potential benefits versus potential risks.

Sheff is saying that a parent should not panic, should not threaten, should not intidate, should not bully, should not punish… but should try to reason with his child.

If a child is punished, in one way or another, he will understand that the punishment is the price of doing drugs. And he may well decide that the punishment is not really all that bad… that he can do the time, even that the high is so good that he is willing to pay for it with a low.

If a child feels coerced he will feel that he is being deprived of his free will. He will believe that he can only assert his independence, thus that he is not a child, by defying parental orders and parental pressure.

Sheff is saying that parents must give adolescents the sense that they are making the choice themselves. It’s easier for a child to think and to tell his friends that he has decided that he cannot run track or compete at math if he is high, thus that drugs will impede his success, than to tell himself or his friends that he can’t take drugs because his father threatened to beat him up or throw him out of the house if he got caught doing them.

The challenge is all the more daunting because adolescent brains are not fully developed. The areas of the brain associated with moral reasoning develop in late adolescence. Children start experimenting with drugs and alcohol earlier than that.

Sheff is recommending that parents speak slightly over the heads of their children, take them as more moral than they are. And he suggests that they do so, not by appealing to emotion, not by exploring how they really, really feel but by communicating facts and information. He recommends that they refer to objective realities, since these do not involve opinion, interpretation or feeling.

This is more controversial than it seems. At a time when therapy is all about feelings and fantasies, fictions and dreams, where most therapists are ill inclined to refer to objective facts, Sheff is recommending that parents communicate accurate information about what drugs and alcohol do to the human body and the human mind.

After all, science has provided us with information about what marijuana use does to the developing adolescent brain.

And one might add a few lessons on the effects of malnourishment on the adolescent body. Obviously, girls are more vulnerable to the siren song of self-starvation, and they should learn what happens to their bodies when they go down this path. If schools teach how to use condoms, shouldn't they also have courses on the risks of extreme dieting.

At the least, they should know that malnourishment will impair perception and judgment. It will also damage any one of a number of bodily organs. And they should know that a skeletal frame is decidedly unattractive to boys.

And children should understand the risks involved in sexting. They should know that just because they think that they are doing the cool or even the loving thing, the potential risks are of a different order.

Parents should assume that children want to do well in school, that they want to go to college, that they want to be successful in life, and that, given the right information they will make the right decision.

If a parent respects a child, a parent will allow the child to feel that he is making his own decision. If so, he is more likely to communicate with you about what he and his friends are doing or not doing.

Of course, one needs to recognize that one is dealing with a child, not an adult. Lisa Frederickson recommends that parents do as much as they can to give a child a structured environment. An orderly household, led by parents who are trustworthy, responsible and reliable creates such an environment.One hastens to mention that family dinners serve this purpose admirably.

A parent who does not care enough to spend time at home with his or her child should not be surprised when the child comes to believe that said parent does not care.

A child who lives in a chaotic environment, who does not know whether anyone will be at home on any particular evening, who is left to fend for himself… will be more likely to seek structure elsewhere, even within a group of children who have nothing else connecting them than consuming the same banned substance.


Ares Olympus said...

There are a lot of "shoulds" in this advice. I wonder if that word works on parents any better than on kids?

My thought is there's probably no singular approach that works well for all kids. But maybe if try a few different approaches one will do the trick?

Hearing about "life experiences" of others is a good way to learn from other people's mistakes, and "do as I say, not as I did" worked for me.

I remember in middle school, back in the 80's our health teacher brought in teen runaways to speak in front of the class, all of them experimented with drugs, and the two girls both got involved prostitution, both for money, and in exchange personal protection.

I was surprised the teacher let them speak freely, and answer questions that had answers that were not all negatives.

In comparison, I had no vice to copy from my parents. My parents never smoked or drank, and it never occured to me to do so, while my extroverted brother did both.

And when my friends got into drinking in college, and one asked why I didn't, I said my parents didn't, and they decided that was a good reason. For some reason they thought I was judging them while I was just worried whether orange juice was spiked or not.

One friend said he'd try anything once, like drugs, and I thought he was crazy, like why would you ever want to do something that makes you act stupid?

I remember some quote, something like "When you're old, you'll regret the things you didn't do, rather than what you did do."

I always wondered about that, but so far I've not found it to be true. Why do things unless you know exactly why you want to do them?

I don't mind making mistakes when I'm trying something new, but I want to to be sober enough to see what happen. And if everyone else is doing something I don't know about, more reason to watch and see from a safe distance.

Is this a very unusual trait?

Leo G said...

K. Here goes. Told my boys that if they always answered truthfully to my questions the punishment would be mute. If caught in a lie, harsh. Seemed to work.

As for the drug talk, totally disagree. I was blunt with them at 7 and 5 that if caught doing drugs things would not be pretty.

Oldest has only consumed alcohol, the youngest weed a couple of time and alcohol. Both are over 20 and I feel no remorse as to how I handled the drug talk, and both are very well adjusted and go getters.

Reasoning with a child? LOL! I was not their friend, I was their parent. Now I can be their friend because they are mature enough to take care of themselves.

Lindsay Harold said...

Children should be taught the consequences of doing drugs and alcohol. They need to know what these and other risky behaviors actually do to their bodies and minds. It is part of being a good parent to educate children about the risks of such things.

However, because children are not fully mature and do not understand the full consequences of their behavior, parents must also make rules and enforce them and thus train children to obey, even if they don't understand.

It's much easier for a child to understand that if they do drugs, they will receive a punishment from their parents than that drugs might hurt their brains in some way or cause them to do something dangerous.

Kids think they are bulletproof. They don't understand complex risks. And so, if they think the consequences of doing drugs (or alcohol or promiscuous sex or whatever) don't apply every time, they will take the chance, not understanding how much danger they are placing themselves in. That is why parents have to provide very clear consequences for risky behaviors that apply every time in order to help them avoid such behaviors while they are still children and cannot make informed risk assessments for themselves.

Parental responsibility involves both education about risks AND protection from risky behaviors during childhood when they cannot make such decisions for themselves.