“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,” the grief stricken father began.
“One day,” he continued, “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.”
Jim Bildner, the letter’s author, had lost his son to a heroin overdose.
Joseph A. Califano, Jr., who wrote about Bildner’s loss, is chairman emeritus and founder of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), in New York.
Califano wrote “High Society. How substance abuse ravages America and what to do about it” and led a conference at Columbia on “How to Stop Wasting the Best and the Brightest: Substance Abuse at America’s Colleges and Universities.”
The principal antidote to drug abuse in our children, Califano tells us, is early communication.
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.
- Set a good example: Actions are more persuasive than words.
- Set rules and expect your children to follow them.
- Monitor your children’s whereabouts.
- Maintain family rituals, such as eating dinner together.
- Incorporate religious and spiritual practices into family life.
- Get Dad engaged—and keep him engaged.
- Engage the larger family of your children’s friends, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and the community.
Family communications are a must. And, no surprise here, when parents begin communicating, there is likely to be some push back from the kids regarding the parents’ qualifications for judging others and other diversions. If you’re stuck on any of the following, turn to Califano’s book.
- “You and dad drink wine/beer/a martini with dinner. Why can’t I?”
- “What’s the difference between your drinking beer and my smoking pot?”
- “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.”
- “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?”
- “Lots of kids on the football/basketball/soccer team/honor roll drink and smoke pot, and they’re fine.”
- “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.”
Another source of information for parents is, “Treatment of Adolescents with Substance Abuse Disorders,” published by the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
“The onset of substance abuse is occurring at younger ages,” SAMHSA says, “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.”
A sample of the points this publication makes, includes the following:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Substance abuse robs children of experiences, which help them become mature adults.
Substance abuse often insulates adolescents from gaining the experiences that are part of growing up, such as dating, marrying, bearing and raising children, establishing a career, and building rewarding personal relationships.
- Adolescent girls and boys may have different treatment needs.
In their earliest years, for example, 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Bad grades in elementary school signal trouble ahead.
Because there is a high likelihood that substance abuse problems are associated with mental health problems, a good place to begin with an assessment of your child is at a psychiatric hospital.
Why Teens Use
Gaining an understanding of why teenagers want to use prescription drugs is helpful. Here are the top reasons given in a SAMHSA survey:
- 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%)
To summarize, 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.