It is a sad reality that the vast majority of people who become addicted to tobacco, alcohol and drugs take their first puff, chew, sip, snort or injection when they are young — often, very young. Worse, in recent decades substance abuse has become more widespread among preteen children.
Like the scourges of old, this epidemic spreads without regard to economic, racial, geographic, educational, religious or family boundaries. While containing it in our nation and our communities is an important priority, we can't rely solely on government, law enforcement, education, or even church programs to prevent it from moving across our own doorstep.
No child is immune from the drug epidemic. (Throughout this section, unless otherwise stated, the words drug or drugs will be used to indicate any potentially harmful substance — tobacco, alcohol, prescription medications or illegal drugs.) You must work diligently over the years to "drug-proof" your children. This project involves various tasks that cannot be tackled haphazardly.
First, you must understand what draws kids toward drugs. You also need basic information about the substances that are currently prevalent in your neighborhood. You should become familiar with the signs that a drug problem might be developing in your home. Finally and most importantly, you must be prepared to take long-term preventive measures and to respond appropriately if one or more of these toxins should breach your family's defenses.
Several factors can exert a significant influence on who will and who won't try drugs:
Attractiveness of drugs. Smoking and drinking are widely promoted as habits enjoyed by sophisticated, fun-loving, attractive and sexy people — what most adolescents long to become. Illegal drugs are "advertised" by those using them in an adolescent's peer group.
The high induced by drugs. If drug use wasn't pleasurable, it would be relatively easy to keep kids and harmful substances separated. But the reality is that many kids enjoy the way they feel on drugs — at least for a while.
Attitudes of parents toward tobacco, alcohol and other substances. Children learn what they live. Smoking, drinking and other drug-related behaviors among parents will usually be duplicated in their children.
Availability of drugs. Finding drugs is not difficult for children and adolescents in most communities, but tougher local standards can help keep drugs out of less-determined hands.
Peer pressure. Peers play a huge role at each stage of a child's or adolescent's drug experience — whether resisting them, experimenting, becoming a user or confronting withdrawal and recovery. The need for peer acceptance is especially strong during the early adolescent years and can override (or at least seriously challenge) a young person's values and commitments. "Just say no" may not mean a whole lot when smoking, drinking or taking drugs determines who is included among the highly esteemed ranks of the inner circle.
There are three obvious implications: First, it is important that kids find their niche in the right peer group(s), among friends who are not only committed to positive values (including a drug-free lifestyle) but also involved in worthwhile and enjoyable pursuits. Second, you may have to intervene if your adolescent (especially in the early teen years) is hanging out with the wrong crowd. Finally, children and adolescents with a healthy, stable identity and an appropriate sense of independence will be more resistant to peer pressure.
Curiosity. Unless your family lives in total isolation, your child will be aware of smoking, alcohol and drug use well before adolescence from discussions at school, watching TV and movies, or direct observation. Some curiosity is inevitable: What do these things feel like?
Whether this leads to sampling will depend on the individual's mind-set; whether an experiment progresses to addiction will in turn depend on the physical and emotional responses to the particular substance.
Thrill-seeking. This desire for excitement is in all of us to some degree and is what propels us toward certain activities: skydiving, roller coasters, movies (where sights and sounds are bigger than life), firework displays, sporting events and so on. Some of these are more risky than others, but none require chemical alteration of the senses to be satisfying.
Unfortunately, many children and adolescents seek drug experiences to produce thrills that normal life and consciousness can't duplicate. Some observers have argued that this desire to alter consciousness is universal, wired into humans much like the desire for food, and that trying to prevent it is as futile as sweeping back the ocean with a broom. Assuming this is the case (which is certainly debatable) does not mean, however, that any and all forms of thrill-seeking should be given free rein. A number of other human instincts are no less universal, but hardly virtuous: pride, greed, hunger for power, the desire to dominate other people, lust, selfishness and so on.
Rebellion. Wayward children may engage in smoking, alcohol and drug use as a show of independence from family norms and values.
Escape from life/relief from pain. For many people — indeed, for most people in the world — life is just plain tough, and normal waking consciousness brings a constant stream of unpleasant sights, smells, sounds and sensations. The prospect of a chemical "timeout" may look very attractive. Furthermore, even when a person has plenty of creature comforts, the prevailing emotional weather can still be turbulent: kids and teens often feel anxious, angry, depressed, oppressed, stressed, bored, unfulfilled.
Whether one is down and out or rich and famous, drugs that bring about relaxation, stimulation or pure escape can be appealing. The strongest resistance to drug abuse therefore arises from an ongoing sense of joy and contentment that transcends circumstances. These attitudes are usually acquired, not inborn. Early positive experiences in the family and an active, wide-awake relationship with God play the most important roles in molding such attitudes.
A conviction that "it can't happen to me" or that the consequences don't matter. Many teenagers and young adults are prone to assume their own invulnerability or immortality, make shortsighted decisions, or shrug off the most fervent warnings about life's pitfalls and perils with a smirk or the defiant pronouncement "I don't care." Shedding this perspective, learning to weigh consequences and adopting a long-range view of life are normal parts of maturing into adulthood. Unfortunately, some who become deeply involved in drug use remain stuck in an immature, self-destructive mind-set.
Experts in adolescent substance problems have identified a common progression of alcohol- and drug-related behaviors that moves from bad to worse. While it is not a foregone conclusion that everyone who experiments with drugs will progress to the worst stages of involvement, a child can incur a lot of damage before parents or others notice that something is wrong. Secretive adolescent behavior and skillful lying, combined with parental denial ("No one in our family could have a drug problem!"), may delay identification of the problem. While paranoia and daily inquisitions around the breakfast table are counterproductive, wise parents will keep their eyes and ears open and promptly take action if they see any signs that a problem may be developing.
Parents may notice:
Parents may notice the behaviors listed earlier, plus:
Parents are likely to deal with:
This descent into drug hell is a nightmare that no parent envisions while rocking a newborn baby or escorting an eager 5-year-old to kindergarten. But it can happen in any neighborhood, any church, any family, even when parents have provided a stable and loving home environment. In fact, it is often in such homes that a drug problem goes undetected until it's reached an advanced and dangerous stage. This can't be happening; not in my house! But if it does, parental guilt, anger and depression can undermine the responses necessary to restore order.
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.
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:
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:
Even closely knit families with strong values and ongoing drug-proofing have no guarantee that substance abuse won't affect one or more of their children. The problems may range from a brief encounter with cigarettes to an episode of intoxication (perhaps with legal consequences) to an addiction. As you begin to cope with one or more chemical intruders in your home, keep the following principles in mind:
1. Don't deny or ignore the problem. If you do, it is likely to worsen until your family life is turned inside out. Take the bull by the horns — but be sure to find out exactly how big and ugly the bull is. The marijuana cigarette you discovered may be a one-time experiment or the tip of the iceberg. Talk to your child or adolescent about it — but also talk to siblings, friends and anyone else who may know the extent of the problem. You may not like what you hear, but better to get the hard truth now than a ghastly surprise later.
2. Don't wallow in false guilt. Most parents assume a great deal of self-blame when a drug problem erupts in their home. If you do carry some responsibility for what has happened (whether you know about it immediately or find out later on), face up to it, confess it to God and your family, and then get on with the task of helping your child. But remember that young users must deal with their own responsibility as well.
3. Seek help from people experienced with treating drug problems. Talk to your physician and pastor. They should be part of your team, even if in a supporting role. It is likely that you will receive a referral to a professional who is experienced in organizing a family intervention. This may include educational sessions, individual and family counseling, medical treatment and long-term follow-up. When the user's behavior is out of control and he is unwilling to acknowledge the problem, a carefully planned confrontation by family members and others affected may need to be carried out under the supervision of an experienced counselor. The goal is to convince the drug user in a firm but loving way of the need for change — now. The confrontation should include specific alternatives for the type of treatment he will undergo and clear-cut consequences if he is not willing to cooperate.
4. Be prepared to make difficult, "tough love" decisions. If you have a drug-dependent adolescent who will not submit to treatment and insists on continuing drug use and other destructive actions, you will need to take the stomach-churning step of informing him that he cannot continue to live in your home while carrying on this behavior. This will be necessary not only to motivate him to change but to prevent his drug-induced turbulence from destroying the rest of your family.
If you must take this drastic step, it would be helpful to present him with one or more options. These might include entering an inpatient drug-treatment center, halfway house, boot-camp program or youth home, or staying with a relative or another family who is willing to accept him for a defined period of time. More ominous possibilities may need to be discussed as well, such as making him a ward of the court or even turning him over to the police if he has been involved in criminal activity. If you continue to shield him from the consequences of his behavior or bail him out when his drugs get him into trouble, he will not change and you will be left with deep-seated anger and frustration.
5. Don't look for or expect quick-fix solutions. It is normal to wish for a single intervention that will make a drug problem go away. But one conversation, counseling session, prayer time or trip to the doctor won't be enough. Think in terms of a comprehensive response encompassing specific treatment and counseling and the gamut of your child's life — home, school, friends and church.
6. Remember the father of the Prodigal Son. Tough love means allowing the consequences of bad decisions to be fully experienced by one who is making them. It also means that your child knows a parent's love for him is so deep and secure that it will never die. Never give up hope, never stop praying, and never slam the door on reconciliation and restoration when your child comes to his senses.