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Reducing the Risk for Substance Abuse

Drug abuse is so widespread in our culture that you cannot expect to isolate your child from exposure to it. However, as with diseases caused by bacteria and viruses, you can institute "infection-control measures" by taking specific steps to reduce the likelihood of contact with drugs and to build your child's immunity to using them. These measures should be ongoing, deliberate and proactive:

1. Model behavior you want your children to follow. When it comes to drugs, two adages are worth noting: "Children learn what they live" and "What parents allow in moderation, their children will do in excess." While not absolute truths, these maxims reflect the reality that kids are looking to their parents for cues as to what is acceptable behavior, while at the same time developing the discernment required to understand what moderation is all about.

  • If you smoke, your offspring will probably do likewise. But it's never too late to quit, and your decision to give up cigarettes will make an important statement to all the members of your family — especially if you are willing to hold yourself accountable to them.
  • If you consume alcohol at home, what role does it play in your life? Does it flow freely on a daily basis? Do you need a drink to unwind at the end of the day? Is it a necessary ingredient at every party or family get-together? If so, your children will get the idea that alcohol is a painkiller, tension reliever, and the life of the party, and they will likely use it in a similar fashion. For their sake (and yours), take whatever steps are necessary to live without alcohol.
  • If you drink modestly — an occasional glass of wine with dinner, a beer every other week, a few sips of champagne at a wedding — think carefully about alcohol's role in your family. Many parents decide to abstain while rearing their children in order to send an unambiguous message to steer clear of it. Others feel that modeling modest, non-intoxicated use of alcohol (while speaking clearly against underage drinking, drunkenness, driving under the influence and other irresponsible behaviors) equips children and teenagers to make sensible decisions later in life.
  • Each family must weigh the options carefully and set its own standards. But if you or any blood relatives have a history of alcohol addiction (or any problem caused by drinking), make your home an alcohol-free zone and warn your adolescent that he or she may have a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism.
  • Also think about the impact of your family's habits on visitors or guests, including your teenager's friends. What might be perfectly harmless for you could prompt someone who has a potential for alcohol addiction to make a bad decision. All things considered, nothing is lost and much can be gained by abstaining.
  • What about the medicine cabinet? If you are stressed, upset or uncomfortable, are d-r-u-g-s the way you spell r-e-l-i-e-f? Have you accumulated prescription narcotics and tranquilizers that you use freely when the going gets tough? Kids aren't blind. If they see the adults around them frequently taking legitimate drugs to dull their pain, they wonder why they can't use their own drugs to do the same.
  • Even when medications have been prescribed appropriately, overuse and even addiction is possible with certain types of drugs. If you have a chronic condition for which habit-forming medications have been prescribed, you would be wise not only to model responsible use but also to demonstrate when possible your commitment to find other types of treatment (for example, physical therapy, exercise or counseling) that might be appropriate. Note: The appropriate use of antidepressants to treat the biochemistry of mood disorders does not represent a potential abuse situation. These medications are neither addicting nor habit-forming and are not sold on the street to create an artificial drug high.
  • Finally, if you use marijuana and other street drugs, whether for recreation or because of an addiction problem, you are putting the parental stamp of approval not only on the drugs but also on breaking the law. For your own and your family's sake, seek help immediately and end this dangerous behavior.

2. Build identity and attitudes that are resistant to drug use. This is an ongoing process, beginning during the first years of your child's life. Specifically:

  • Create an environment that consistently balances love and limits. Children and teenagers who know they are loved unconditionally are less likely to seek pain relief through drugs, and those who have learned to live within appropriate boundaries will have better impulse control and self-discipline.
  • Instill respect and awe for the God-given gift of a body and mind — even one that isn't perfect.
  • Help children and adolescents become students of consequences — not only in connection with drugs but with other behaviors as well. Talk about good and bad choices and the logic behind them. "Just say no" is an appropriate motto for kids to learn, but understanding why it is wrong to use harmful substances will build more solid resistance.
  • Build a positive sense of identity with your family. This means not only openly affirming and appreciating each member but also putting forth the time and effort for shared experiences that are meaningful and fun. A strong feeling of belonging to a loving family builds accountability ("Our family doesn't use drugs") and helps prevent loneliness, which can be a setup for drug experimentation.
  • Encourage church-related activities (and family devotions) that build a meaningful, personal faith. Reliance on God is the cornerstone of effective drug-treatment programs, and it makes no sense to leave the spiritual dimension out of the prevention process. A vibrant faith reinforces the concept that the future is worth protecting, stabilizes the emotions during turbulent years, and provides a healthy response to the aches and pains of life. In addition, an awareness of God's presence and a desire not to dishonor Him can be strong deterrents to destructive behavior.

3. Begin talking early about smoking, alcohol and drugs. Because experimentation with drugs and alcohol commonly begins during the grade school years, start appropriate countermeasures in very young children. A 5-year-old may not be ready for a lecture about the physiology of cocaine addiction, but you should be ready to offer commentary when you and your child see someone smoking or drinking, whether in real life or in a movie or TV program. When intoxication is portrayed as humorous (as in the pink elephant sequence in the movie Dumbo, for example), don't be shy about setting the record straight.

4. Keep talking about smoking, alcohol and drugs as opportunities arise. Make an effort to stay one step ahead of your child or adolescent's knowledge of the drug scene. If you hear about an athlete, rock star, or celebrity who uses drugs, be certain that everyone in the family understands that no amount of fame or fortune excuses this behavior. If a famous person is dealing with the consequences of drug use (such as being dropped from a team or suffering medical or legal consequences), make sure your kids hear the cautionary tale.

Be aware of current trends in your community and look for local meetings or lectures where abuse problems are being discussed. Find out what's going on — not only from the experts but also from your kids and their friends. If you hear that a group of kids are smoking, drinking, inhaling or injecting drugs, talk about it. What are they using? What consequences are likely? Why is it wrong? What help do they need?

All this assumes that you are available to have these conversations. Be careful, because the time when you may be the busiest with career or other responsibilities may also be the time one or more adolescents at home most need your input. If you're too overworked, overcommitted and overtired to keep tabs on the home front, you may wake up one day to find a major drug problem on your doorstep.

5. Don't allow your child or adolescent to go to a party, sleepover or other activity that isn't supervised by someone you trust. Don't blindly assume that the presence of a grown-up guarantees a safe environment. Get to know the parents of your kids' friends. Make certain your children know you will pick them up anytime, anywhere – no questions asked — if they find themselves in a situation where alcohol or drugs are being used. And be sure to praise them for a wise and mature decision if they call you for help.

6. Have the courage to curtail your child's or adolescent's contact with drug users. The epidemic of drug abuse spreads person to person. Whether a recent acquaintance or a long-term bosom buddy, if one (or more) of your teenager's friends is known to be actively using alcohol and/or drugs, you must impose restrictions on the relationship. You might, for example, stipulate that your adolescent can spend time with that person only in your home — without any closed doors and only when you are around.

However, even with these limits in place, you will need to keep track of who is influencing whom. If your family is reaching out to a troubled adolescent and helping to move him toward healthier decisions, keep up the good work. But if there is any sign that the drug-using friend is pulling your teenager toward this lifestyle, declare a quarantine immediately. By all means, if your teenager feels called to help a friend climb out of a drug quagmire, don't allow him to try it alone. Work as a team to direct that person toward a recovery program.

7. Create significant consequences to discourage alcohol and drug use. Teenagers may not be scared off by facts, figures and gory details. Even the most ominous warnings may not override an adolescent's belief in her own immortality, especially when other compelling emotions such as the need for peer acceptance are operating at full throttle.

You can improve the odds for your child by making it clear that you consider the use of cigarettes, alcohol or illegal drugs a very serious matter. Careful judgment regarding punishments will be necessary, of course. If your adolescent confesses that she tried a cigarette or a beer at a party and expresses an appropriate resolve to avoid a repeat performance, a heart-to-heart conversation and encouragement would be far more appropriate than summarily grounding her for six months.

But if your warnings repeatedly go unheeded, you will need to establish and enforce some meaningful consequences. Loss of driving, dating or even phone privileges for an extended period of time may be in order. You can make the bitter pill less threatening by pointing out the following:

  • He can easily avoid the penalty by staying clear of drugs and the people who use them.
  • Consistent responsible behavior will lead to more privileges and independence. Irresponsible behavior will lead to decreased independence and more parental control.
  • The drastic consequence can be used as a reason to get away from a bad situation. If a friend starts to exert pressure on your child to smoke, drink, or use drugs he can say, "Sorry, but I don't want to be stuck without transportation for the next six months."
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Adapted from the Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition & Fitness, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

Next in this Series: What if a Drug Problem Has Already Developed?

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