Near the end of his book, How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid: The Straight Dope for Parents (2009), Joseph A. Califano Jr. quotes a father who lost a son to a drug overdose.
His account is heart-breakingly brief.
“Like so many parents,” the father, Jim Bildner, said, “we didn’t heed the warning signs. We found an empty beer bottle in the backyard, we smelled pot on his clothes, we found an unidentifiable pill in the laundry room; we chalked these things up to normal teen behavior, but we were wrong.
“One day, I found his backpack sitting on the bedroom floor, the contents spilling out. Inside was the tie we had given him for Christmas. Only it was cut in half, and he had been using it as a tourniquet. Also in his bag were several bags of heroin and some syringes.”
What can we learn from Jim Bildner’s experience? What is a parent to do?
The principal antidote to drug abuse in our children is early communication, Califano’s book tells us. We’ve heard it before, but it must be said again: Parents have to communicate with their children earlier and more often.
Here are eight more tips from Califano’s book:
- Be there: Get involved in your children’s lives and activities.
2. Set a good example: Actions are more persuasive than words.
3. Set rules and expect your children to follow them.
4. Monitor your children’s whereabouts.
5. Maintain family rituals, such as eating dinner together.
6. Incorporate religious and spiritual practices into family life.
7. Get Dad engaged—and keep him engaged.
8. Engage the larger family of your children’s friends, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and the communityWhen parents begin communicating, there is likely to be some “push-back” from the kids regarding the parents qualifications for judging others and other diversions. Here are some samples:
- “You and dad drink wine/beer/a martini with dinner. Why can’t I?”
2.“What’s the difference between your drinking beer and my smoking pot?
3. “So long as I don’t drink and drive, what’s wrong with having a few beers at a party? All the other kids do.”
4. “Prescription drugs are safe. What’s so bad about using them at a party“How could marijuana be bad for you if it’s just a natural herb?”
5. “Lots of kids on the football/basketball/soccer team/honor roll drink and smoke pot, and they’re fine.”
6. “Most kids who smoke cigarettes don’t smoke pot, and most kids who smoke pot don’t turn into drug addicts. I can handle it. Don’t be uptight.”
To help us with answers to these and other questions there is a report, “Treatment of Adolescents with Substance Abuse Disorders,” published by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
In it there are 125 pages full of valuable research and commentary:
“The onset of substance abuse is occurring at younger ages,” SAMHSA says in its report, “resulting in more adolescents entering treatment for substance abuse disorders with greater developmental deficits and perhaps much greater neurological deficits than have been observed in the past.
Here are 10 of the points SAMHSA makes:
- Adolescent users differ from adults and should receive different treatment. Adolescents tend to have smaller body sizes and lower tolerances, putting them at greater risk for alcohol-related problems. They often use drugs and alcohol for different reasons than adults and don’t see the negative consequences of their addictions as clearly.
2. Programs of recovery should involve the adolescent’s family. The family has a possible role in the origins of the problem, and going forward has the ability to change the youth’s environment to suit his [or her] recovery. Also, family members usually have problems of their own that may profitably be addressed.
3. Assessment should be continuous. A program for the adolescent’s recovery must begin with an assessment of where he or she is today, along with a plan of action. As time passes, new assessments should be made based on the adolescent’s progress and changes in his [or her] environment.
4.The core components of most adolescent treatment programs are the same or close to it. The main components of a typical residential treatment program include an opening orientation session; a daily schedule of activities (i.e., school, chores, homework, recreation); group sessions involving peers; learning how to resolve conflicts; negotiating agreements between clients and staff called “contracts;” attending an on-site school; and vocational training.
5. Substance abuse robs children of experiences which help them become mature adults. Substance abuse often insulates adolescents from gaining the experience that are part of growing up such as dating, marrying bearing and raising children, establishing a career, and building rewarding personal relationships.
6. Adolescent girls often have different treatment needs. In their earliest years, female substance abusers tend, more than boys, to have experienced severe parental rejection and sexual and physical abuse. This kind of family dysfunction requires special care.
7. A majority of substance abusing adolescents also need treatment for psychiatric disorders. Substance abuse and psychiatric disorders frequently go together with the label “co-existing” or “dual diagnosis.”) The most common are attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders, unipolar and bipolar depression, and anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress syndrome.
8. Adolescents who come into contact with the juvenile justice system are likely to have severe problems in a number of areas. Substance abuse and the problems that accompany them—illegal activity, homelessness, shame surrounding sexual identity, and coexisting mental disorders—among those who have run up against the juvenile justice system require special handling.
9. The risk of substance abuse in adolescents rises with a poor family environment. Lack of parenting skills, high levels of family conflict, and poor bonding between parents and children increases the chance in adolescents for substance abuse.
10. Bad grades in elementary school can signal trouble ahead. Don’t let bad grades go by. Find out what’s wrong.
WHY TEENS USE
Gaining an understanding of why teenagers want to use drugs can be helpful. Here are the top reasons given in a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):
- To deal with the pressures and stress of school (73%)
- To feel better about themselves (65%)
- To “look cool” (65%)
- To deal with problems at home (55%)
- To feel good (40%)
Kids exposed to a high level of risk factors (such as availability of drugs, family conflict, parental attitude favorable towards drug use, poor performance in school, and depression, for example) are more apt to abuse drugs. By the same token, kids with a high level of “protective factors” (such as positive peers, religious involvement, academic accomplishment, involvement in pro-social activities, and strong family environment) are less apt to abuse.