Addressing Kids’ Drug and Alcohol Use: A Parent’s Guide
How are we supposed to guide our kids when pot is legal, we drink, psychedelics are touted as medicine, and some prescribed medicines are highly addictive? I regularly advise parents in this predicament and I am also a father of 3 boys so I’m right there with you! I know that, in the moment, it’s hard to set a limit or figure out the line between experimentation and trouble. Only a fraction develop the 4 C’s of addiction – craving, compulsion, loss of control, and consequences. But kids may have problematic use, and you might be right to worry.
Some kids are more at risk: those with a family history of addiction; who have a high tolerance; with impulsivity including ADHD; with mood or anxiety issues; and especially those with a heavy-using peer group. Look for a shift from valued goals, changes in mood and sleep, irritability and avoidance. Of course, this sounds like so many adolescents, right? Like the birds and the bees conversation, you might need to have the talk. Here are a few tips.
- Be real. Claiming that all drugs and alcohol are always bad is patently untrue, and kids aren’t falling for it. Aim for safety, wise planning, acceptance of – and learning from – error. That’s hard for parents raised in this odd era of War on Drugs, abstinence-oriented treatment and ‘Just Say No’ naivety. If you have a child who is experimenting, you want them to feel secure coming to you and discussing their curiosity and mistakes. If they are in more trouble, it’s highly unlikely your force will get them to see the light. You’ll need to be more strategic.
- Use harm reduction and educate. What is your expectation? According to Monitoring the Future (a large annual national survey), by the end of High School, 62% of students will have drank; 17% of HS seniors binge drink. Because memory is impaired, frontal lobes under-developed, and learning state-dependent, they can’t integrate their experience into new learning. Talk with them about drinking lower-alcohol drinks, slower and on a full stomach. Practice how to decline a drink or a car ride with a drunk driver. Consider sharing your experiences and mistakes. It’s time.
- Be the grown-up. All kids, but especially those prone to problematic use, favor immediate gratification over long-term goals. Don’t allow your emotions to make you as impulsive. We often blame our kids for how we feel, but really we have to take responsibility for our own emotions and actions before we can expect them to do the same. If you’re frightened or angry, notice and take the time to calm down enough to have a conversation with your child. Focus on long-term goals and values. Try not to nag (which makes them glaze over), or get mad (which makes them shut down or fight back).
- Reward success rather than punish. Impulsive people are less sensitive to punishment and become resentful rather than reflect and learn from remorse. Focus on valued goals and reward behaviors (with love, time and money) that foster accomplishment, reinforce a healthy peer group, and move towards those goals. If punishment is warranted then choose one that makes sense and fits the crime. Before the punishment is revoked, state clearly what behaviors you need to see changed.
- Don’t enable. The Achilles heel of caring parents is relieving their kids’ suffering. But this impedes learning and is enabling: sometimes we need to suffer a bit in order to learn. Let natural consequence happen, rather than bailing your kid out of a bad situation. Of course, be sensible: you shouldn’t let them drive drunk and crash. But nor should you write to the sports coach saying he’s sick when he’s actually hung over.
- Pay attention to emotions. Use becomes more compelling and problematic either because it is changing our decisions, dragging us from valued goals; or because it shields us from feelings and anxiety. So don’t make it all about the drugs. Listen – really listen – to their experience and feelings, without patronizing judgment or shaming criticism. Do you remember what that felt like? Try to speak about your feelings (I feel sad/ afraid) rather than criticizing them. Validate how they feel. If the conversation is going poorly then stop and regroup.