If you’ve lived through a family member’s addiction, whether a grandparent, aunt, cousin, sibling or your own, you intimately understand the gravity of the disease. But your children, blissfully unaware of their family history, may not take drugs and alcohol as seriously as they should – that is, until you make them.
Genetics accounts for about half the risk of developing addiction. Those with a family history of addiction, meaning one or more blood relatives has had a drug or alcohol problem, are at a significantly higher risk of suffering from addiction and other mental health disorders. Children of alcoholics, for example, are four times more likely than other children to become alcoholics themselves. They also tend to suffer from low self-esteem, poor academic performance, abuse and neglect, and other issues at higher rates than other children.
Fortunately, genes aren’t all we pass on to our children. Environment, upbringing and parenting style make up the other half of a child’s addiction risk and are, at least to some extent, within our control. Since we cannot yet reliably predict the risk for developing addiction, you best serve your child by preparing them for all eventualities. Just as you would talk to them about their risk for diabetes or heart disease, having your own series of “genetic counseling sessions” with your child can help safeguard them against addiction.
Explain the Facts. Educate your child about the nature of addiction so they know what they’re up against. Addiction is a chronic, progressive disease that rewires the brain’s response to drugs and alcohol. There is no “cure” for addiction, but there are various medications, support groups and therapies that can help people recover.
There’s no need to make threats or attempt to scare your children into abstinence. Addiction is a health issue, not a moral failing or character flaw. Since approaching it with blame or shame may drive them closer to drugs and away from open conversation with you, skip the judgments and stick to the facts.
Meet Them Where They’re At. Conversations about drugs and alcohol should start as early as elementary school and no later than middle school, when children are first exposed to the concept and your influence still reigns supreme. Roughly one in 10 13- to 14-year-olds has used drugs or alcohol, a number that increases exponentially by the time children reach 17 or 18 years of age.
For younger kids, use television shows, movies and news stories to start a discussion about the harm drugs can cause. With older kids, ask open-ended questions about how they feel about drug use and what their friends are experiencing. Let them set the depth and pace of the conversation – this way, if they aren’t ready to talk now they’ll know they can come to you later.
Be Bold. Whether you believe it’s realistic or not, make it clear that while experimentation may be acceptable in some families, your children don’t have the same luxury. The “just say no” approach isn’t always effective, especially with teens, but it’s the best advice when addiction runs in the family.
Even if your child isn’t willing to abstain from drugs and alcohol permanently, encourage them to hold off as long as possible. Research shows that teens who begin using drugs before age 14 are at greater risk for addiction than those who delay their first use until age 21 or older.
Strengthen Their Defenses. With drugs and alcohol, knowledge only goes so far. The reality is teens who know better don’t always do better. A more effective alternative to “just say no” is bolstering your child’s emotional, physical and spiritual defenses against addiction. A child that knows how to cope with stress and has high resilience and self-esteem will be less likely to self-medicate with drugs than a child that lacks these skills.
A warm and caring home environment, where children feel they can share their feelings, where family time is cherished, and where kids are met with praise and unconditional love, encourages open conversation. There are many ways children can socialize without using drugs or alcohol, such as joining a club or team sport. If they go to parties, help them find ways to fit in without drinking or using drugs (e.g., by practicing ways to say no and having excuses ready if they need to leave). Kids who pursue their passions and volunteer to serve others are more likely to have a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, steering them away from negative influences.
Get Involved. If your child isn’t talking to you, you can be certain they’re talking to someone, who may or may not provide accurate information or have their best interests in mind. From the pre-teens on (if not earlier), your child should know your rules about drug use as well as the potential consequences for violating a rule. Kids who clearly understand their parents’ expectations, and whose parents set a good example by following their own rules, are less likely to use drugs.
Particularly when addiction runs in the family, stay alert to additional risk factors such as poor academic performance, having friends who use drugs or going through a period of high stress. Just as you would take your child to the doctor for an infection or cold, talk to a substance abuse counselor, treatment center or other health care professional if you think your child may have a drug problem.
Having a family history of addiction is not your child’s fault, but neither is a genetic propensity for obesity, depression or cancer. Still, what we inherit becomes our responsibility – and is, in a sense, a blessing that can put your child on notice that the rules of engagement with drugs and alcohol are different for them.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes Promises, The Ranch, Right Step, The Recovery Place, The Sexual Recovery Institute, Malibu Vista, and Spirit Lodge.
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Last reviewed: 14 May 2013