By the time most children enter middle school their parents are starting to realize they’re not little kids anymore. They’re not quite teenagers yet, either. Regardless, many are playing the part, wearing makeup, spending hours on Facebook and, much to their parents’ dismay, asking to go on dates.
Conventional wisdom says there’s no “right” age to start dating – it depends on the child’s maturity. But new research suggests there is probably a “wrong” age to start dating: middle school. If your pre-teen is in pursuit of a junior-high romance, make sure you’ve talked with them about these five risks:
#1 Drug Use – Building on a large body of research, a recent study from the University of Georgia found children who date in middle school use alcohol and marijuana twice as much as their peers who hold off on dating until high school. The more time teens spend with a love interest, the more likely they are to use drugs. Those most at risk for substance abuse are girls who date boys two or more years older than them.
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.
In working with the spouses and significant others of addicts, I’ve often heard it said, “I’d rather be an addict than love one.” While few people would ever walk eyes-wide-open into a chronic disease like addiction, the statement speaks to the confusion, loneliness and despair common not only among addicts but also the men and women who love them.
A history of addiction doesn’t necessarily turn Mr./Mrs. Right into Mr./Mrs. Wrong. In fact, addicts who are solid in their recovery can make excellent partners. They’ve waged a courageous battle, spending a great deal of time working to take care of and improve themselves. But before you put yourself in a position to fall for an addict, there are a few things you need to know:
For anyone considering dating an active addict, it is important to realize that love cannot conquer addiction. Addiction takes priority over everything – you, children, career, financial security, even one’s own freedom. Before diving into a relationship, find out if your prospective partner is actively using drugs or alcohol, or if they display addictive or compulsive patterns in other areas (e.g., gambling, work, sex, food or spending).
Among the most tragic consequences of addiction is the devastating – and sometimes lifelong – impact on the children of an addict. More than 28 million Americans are children of alcoholics. Prescription drug addiction has been rising over the past decade, with more stories about moms keeping their addiction secret. While many of these children go on to lead healthy, productive lives, they also struggle in a way that is characteristic of their upbringing. For example, we know that children of alcoholics:
• Are up to four times more likely to struggle with alcoholism and other drug abuse than other kids.
• Exhibit more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other emotional and behavioral disorders than children from non-addicted families.
• Score lower on academic achievement tests and have other difficulties in school.
• Take on too much or too little responsibility to compensate for the lack of parenting they receive from an addict.
• Struggle in interpersonal relationships as a result of mistrust and deficits in communication skills (50 percent of children of alcoholics marry an alcoholic).
• Are more likely to witness domestic violence and become victims of abuse, incest, neglect and other childhood traumas, sometimes resulting in removal from the home.
In the midst of active addiction, the addict can do little to help themselves, not to mention their children. So what can spouses, relatives, friends, neighbors and others do to help when they see a child suffering in an addicted home?
People can become addicted to any number of substances or behaviors, including drugs, gambling, sex and food, but can you become addicted to another person? In some sense, yes – it’s called codependency, and it can be extremely damaging to both individuals.
Codependency can arise in any type of relationship, but we most commonly think of the addict and their highly enmeshed spouse or partner. By denying the existence of a problem, trying to control the addict’s drug use or rescuing them from the consequences of their actions, the partner enables the addiction. The partner feels needed and the addict feels justified in maintaining their drug habit. It’s a win-win that actually ends up being lose-lose.
A critical task of addiction recovery is restoring empathy. By sharing stories and reaching out to help others in recovery, addicts gradually repair the empathy deficits caused by drug and alcohol abuse. But is it possible to have too much empathy? When does being “too nice” become a problem?
Human beings have an innate capacity for empathy, but because of biology, environment and other factors, we each inhabit our own unique space on the empathy spectrum. People with autism spectrum disorders, for example, may struggle to interpret basic emotions whereas people with certain brain anomalies are hyper-empathetic. For instance, people with a condition known as mirror-touch synesthesia have hyperactive mirror neurons, cells that fire when we see others in pain. So they actually feel physical pain when they see someone else suffering.
Ever feel like keeping your teen safe is a full-time job? That’s because it can be. Teenagers are programmed for risk-taking, according to research from Temple University. While the parts of the brain that control emotion and social interaction are highly active during adolescence, the behavior-regulation center doesn’t fully mature until around age 25.
This helps explain why the answers to timeless parental questions like, “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you, too?” are a resounding yes!
All of this thrill-seeking means that even if your teen understands the dangers of drug use and “knows better,” they’re still at risk. Although the reasons for teen drug use are as complex as teenagers themselves, here are five of the most common reasons teens start using drugs, along with steps you can take to stop them in their tracks:
It may seem counterintuitive that people whose lives were once dominated by drugs or alcohol could turn around and become a company’s most valuable asset. Yet many corporate executives have discovered that giving recovering addicts a second chance at success is more than charitable outreach to a disadvantaged group; it’s good business.
Because a career in the field of addiction treatment is a logical choice for many recovering addicts, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some extremely talented people who may have been overlooked in other fields.
In addition to earning a living, careers in this field give the recovering addict a chance to draw on their firsthand experience in relating to clients and to fulfill the 12th Step; carring the message of hope to others still suffering from addiction.
“Increasingly, neuroscientists, psychologists and educators believe that bullying and other kinds of violence can indeed be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age,” reported Maia Szalavitz in an April 17, 2010 article in Time. “Over the past decade, research in empathy — the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes — has suggested that it is key, if not the key, to all human social interaction and morality.
Without empathy, we would have no cohesive society, no trust and no reason not to murder, cheat, steal or lie. At best, we would act only out of self-interest; at worst, we would be a collection of sociopaths.”
Given the importance of empathy, it is disconcerting that today’s college students are 40 percent less empathetic than those in the 80s and 90s, according to a 2010 study from the University of Michigan. These findings and others leave me questioning: In our competition- and independence-obsessed culture, has empathy become an outdated concept? Do parents care about raising empathic children anymore?
There’s always that one parent that makes the rest of us look bad. You know, the one that buys all the cool tech gadgets, doesn’t believe in curfews, and gets friended by their kids (and their kids’ friends) on Facebook. Although we envy any parent that gets more than one-word answers out of their teenager, is being “cool” worth the cost?
If being cool means being up on all the latest teen trends, relating to things teens care about like technology or celebrity gossip, or having the kind of relationship where your teen can tell you anything, go on making the rest of us look like dweebs.
But if your teen starts experimenting with drugs or alcohol or taking risks that put them in danger, it’s time to take a hard look at what coolness has really gotten you.