Seldom do parents feel as helpless and guilty as when they learn that their kids have gotten into trouble with drugs. Lots of parents feel that way. A casual glance at today’s newspaper is likely to tell the painful story of a combination of permissive parents, teenage drinking, and heartbreaking tragedy. Studies show that in 2004 one eighth grader in five used an illegal drug. For seniors it was one in two. While drug use can be devastating, new research is identifying important tools a parent can use now to reduce the risk of drug use in the future, tipping the scale from disaster to safety before danger strikes.
Over the last thirty years I’ve come to call these factors Red Flags and Golden Haloes. A Halo is a factor that protects a child from drugs and alcohol. A Red Flag is a clear warning that a child is drifting towards trouble. Seeing flags or haloes doesn’t guarantee success. But it does increase the chance of a safer outcome for your child. Here’s a list of my top ten steps you can take today before you get a late night phone call about your child from a policeman or an emergency room.
1. Talk to your child early and often about drug and alcohol use .
Surprisingly, plain talk about drugs between parents and kids is at times as difficult as talk about sex, death, and divorce. It needn’t be. The biggest obstacle is the sea of misinformation we swim in when drugs are at issue. The answer is getting informed. The National Institute on Drug Abuse is a good place to start. Their home page (http://www.nida.nih.gov/ ) is a Google click away. It’s filled with information on nearly any drug topic you may be concerned about. Nothing helps a discussion more than facts.
2. Personality: Keep a double watch on the child who is by nature is an impulsive risk taker. This is the kid whose mother is forever shouting after him to go slow. “Slow” is not in this child’s vocabulary, because it’s not in his genetic make-up. This child is at higher risk for drug use. Because the child’s motor is genetically hardwired to rev at a high speed doesn’t mean that you can’t have an influence. Your job is to teach your child to go slow, and see the long range consequences of his actions. Remember, we are talking about an increased risk to drugs here, not a sure fire path to perdition.
3. Peers: Know your child’s friends. This becomes harder as they become teenagers, but the payoff is great. Teens learn more from each other than we’d like to think. If a child has drug using friends the risk is increased that she will try them herself. A parent ruling with an iron hand is seldom successful in making or breaking a teenager’s friendships. But knowing who your child’s friends are- their names, addresses, phone numbers- is a start. Your antennae should go up if your child’s best friend only goes by a nickname and a cell phone. You are not, however, looking for the Devil Incarnate. The odds are that your child’s friends are terrific kids. But even great friends make mistakes from time to time. Playing a broader role in helping your child select healthy activities, sports, jobs, camps and schools also tips the scale in a good direction.
4. School: Encourage hard work, not necessarily high grades.
Kids with good grades and those who value good grades are more likely to stay clean from drugs. But this is tricky. It’s important to remember that the B student who tries hard for her grades gets a Halo as much as the A student. And pressuring a child for A’s can backfire as part of a teen’s rebellion against her parents’ values. It’s hard to realize that in this age of the overscheduled child, the average honors student aspiring to a “good” college can put in a seventy hour week. Pressure is on teens to get good grades, play sports, get high SATs, and log in months of community service and exotic extracurricular activities. The result can be that a teen turns to drugs just to escape from overwork. The answer is balance.
5. Help you teens pick their colleges wisely. That means colleges that take drug and alcohol misuse seriously. College is a time of complete release from a parent’s constraints. Mix one part immature student, one part fraternity hazing, and one part alcohol and you can imagine the kind of trouble kids can get into. A third of college students fulfill diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse. The President of Notre Dame University has called the problem a “culture of irresponsibility.” But not all colleges are equal. The University of Rhode Island, which was called in 1994 the nation’s “number one party school” by the Princeton Review, undertook serious reforms to shed that dubious distinction. When the time comes for a teen to leave for college, make sure you are satisfied that the college enforces the ban on underage drinking and illegal drugs.
6. Religion: Support your child’s involvement in religious activities. Studies show that children with exposure to religion are less likely to become involved with drugs. This should come as a no-brainer. The world’s great religions have taught the virtues of abstinence or moderation in the use of drugs for millennia. This step becomes relevant to the child who is thinking of dropping out of Sunday school to read the Sunday comics instead, or the one who is identifying a spark of an interest for the first time in the ethical or cosmic issues of religion. Try to tip the scale in the right direction. You can be the chauffeur to religious activities. If you are predisposed, make it a family affair. Even a dyed in the wool agnostic or atheist can help a child get the ethical education he needs, consistent with the family’s beliefs.
7. Tobacco and alcohol: Ban the use of alcohol and tobacco by your underage children.
Fight the battle against tobacco at home. You can only win. That’s because even if you lose the fight over cigarettes, the loss may be temporary, and you may set the stage for sober reconsideration about drugs in the future. Make your home a tobacco free zone. There is no healthy reason to smoke. Multiple studies show that the early use of tobacco is a gateway to the use of marijuana, and the heavy use of marijuana is a gateway to harder stuff. If a child is experienced with alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, by age 25 there is a one in three chance he will also be into hard drugs.
I do not condone the practice of giving an underage child “sips” of alcohol at home. An underage child also has an underage liver and brain. Underage sipping also sends the wrong message- that skirting the law governing drugs and alcohol is o.k. It’s not.
8. Double trouble kids: Get help for the child with depression and other psychiatric problems. Too often I see adolescents who are suffering psychiatric disorders which have never been diagnosed, and who are self-medicating with street drugs. Kids begin taking drugs because they elevate their mood in minutes. But the depressed child needs mood elevation to last months. Daily use becomes the disastrous result. Psychiatry has wonderful tools to help children. If you suspect emotional problems in your child, help is a phone call away- to your pediatrician, school counselor, or community psychiatrist.
9. Genes: Respect your family history. If alcohol dependence runs in your family, your biological children are at an increased risk to develop this disease. It’s only sensible, then, to educate yourself and your family, including your children, about the family’s vulnerability. But genes don’t automatically mean inevitability. In fact, if an identical twin has alcoholism, the chances the second twin will only have a 30-60% chance of being addicted, too. What protects the second twin? The environment. That’s where you come in. For kids their parents are the environment.
10. Your own behavior: Take a hard look at your own use of drugs and alcohol. Kids learn much from what you tell them, but even more importantly, what you do. A father who drinks hard liquor increases the chances his children will as well. A mother who uses psychoactive drugs increases the odds her child will experiment with illicit ones. This is not to say that abstinence from alcohol is the answer for every family. There is a strong cultural tradition of moderate drinking for you to address in your family. But teens don’t drink in moderation, though you will be the first one who can teach them moderation if and when the time comes.
I didn’t say these steps were easy. But they may just tip the balance towards saving your child’s life.
Henry David Abraham, M.D.’s recent book is “What’s a Parent to Do? Straight Talk about Drugs and Alcohol.”