Addiction is not parents’ fault (about half the risk is genetic), but you can influence the course of your child’s life by helping them develop the skills that protect against addiction.
#1 Coping Skills
One of the most important goals in treating addiction is equipping addicts with effective coping skills. The skills they learned in childhood might have been tempered by difficult life events, or perhaps they never developed appropriate coping mechanisms at all.
In either case, a need to self-medicate anger, disappointment and other difficult emotions is one of the most common reasons people turn to drugs and alcohol.
By learning how to cope with the full range of emotions – both the ones that feel good and the ones that feel miserable – children become resilient. Coping skills can be as basic as proper self-care (diet, sleep and exercise) or healthy distraction (talking to a friend or taking a walk), or they can be as complex as learning to differentiate between the things we can control and those we cannot.
#2 Social Skills
Human beings crave connection with other human beings. Studies show that social skills are essential for children to make friends, do well in school, and cope with life’s ups and downs. Those who aren’t able to lean on others for support are at greater risk of anxiety, depression and substance abuse.
Talking to children about other people’s feelings, beliefs and desires helps build empathy, a fundamental tool for social interaction. This dialogue can begin as early as age two or three by describing the way characters in books or television shows might be feeling in a given situation and how they might deal with those feelings. Skills such as appropriate eye contact, sharing, taking turns, active listening and assertive communication can also be taught directly and through role modeling.
#3 Life Skills
It’s surprising how many people arrive in drug rehab with minimal life skills. They haven’t balanced a checkbook, prepared a basic meal or washed their own laundry, and it shows in their confidence and ability to function each day. While young children wouldn’t be expected to have mastered these skill sets, the groundwork can be put in place early on.
School doesn’t always equip children with the real-world skills they will need to navigate adolescence and adulthood. Parents play a critical role in teaching their children healthy study habits, money management, cleaning their room, staying organized and creating a daily routine.
#4 Emotional Regulation Skills
Poor impulse control and a need for immediate gratification are strongly correlated with addiction. Although these qualities are normal at certain developmental stages, most children begin to use self-regulation skills without outside intervention. Those who have an extreme or persistent lack of self-control are at higher risk of bullying, academic difficulties, substance abuse and other problem behaviors.
Studies show that self-regulation skills in kindergarten predict literacy, vocabulary and early mathematics skills and are important for social development. Taking a time out, labeling and validating a child’s feelings (both pleasant and unpleasant), and offering positive feedback for appropriate behavior are all useful strategies that aid in responding to emotions appropriately.
Harsh discipline, yelling and spanking, on the other hand, do not teach self-regulation. It is also important for parents to consistently set limits and enforce consequences so that children understand the expectations.
#5 Critical Thinking Skills
Critical thinking encourages children to think for themselves rather than giving in to peer pressure. Schools are effective at teaching children what to think but not necessarily how to think. Starting as early as kindergarten, parents can help their children develop these skills by asking open-ended questions and working through a variety of possible solutions. After a decision is made, it can be helpful to reflect on it and ask your child what they might do differently next time.
#6 Distress Tolerance Skills
Many of the most dreaded behaviors that arise in children, including drug use, are the result of mismanaged stress. While distress tolerance skills alone will not prevent addiction, they do empower children to sit with their emotions without trying to escape or numb them.
One of the greatest disservices modern parents do to their children is getting in the way of the child’s innate learning process. “Helicopter parenting” – the increasingly common practice of hovering over children so they don’t get hurt or have to face problems – has contributed to a society that values immediate gratification over resilience. By intervening in arguments between a child and their friends or doing a tough homework assignment for their child, for example, parents deprive their child of valuable lessons and the skills to cope with stress, as well as the confidence boost that goes along with each small success.
Instead, let your kid be a kid. Life is full of moderate stressors that encourage the development of new skills and provide a sense of mastery. You can supplement this process by introducing your child to novel experiences like making a new friend or trying a new game and allowing them to work through problems on their own.
All of these skill sets can be gained through a combination of experiences at school, explicit teaching and, most importantly, parental role modeling. If you accept accountability for your own feelings, provide plenty of praise and support without overprotecting, and avoid using drugs or alcohol yourself, you can put your child in the best possible position to avoid addiction and other serious problems later on.
Happy kids photo available from Shutterstock.