YOU DON’T HAVE to look far to find chilling statistics about substance abuse among kids. According to University of Michigan research, half of American kids have tried an illicit drug before high school graduation, one in 10 high school seniors admits to recent extreme binge drinking (defined as having 10 or more drinks in a single sitting) and nearly 13 percent of eighth-graders say they’ve smoked marijuana in the past year.
Some kids even throw “pill parties,” according to Charles Pemberton, Ed.D., a Cubmaster and the principal therapist at Dimensions Family Therapy in Louisville, Ky. “Everybody brings their pill of choice, and they go into a big vase. People just randomly take some,” he says.
Not surprisingly, many of those kids end up in trouble. “We see kids in treatment who are 13 or 14 years old,” says Richard Foster, Ph.D., executive vice president of treatment programs for Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pa. “We see them in our teen program and 10 or 12 years later, they’re in our adult program and then they show up in our corrections program someday. It’s sad to see the progression.”
Fortunately, you can stop that progression from ever starting. And you don’t have to lock up your kids — or your liquor and medicine cabinets — to do so. Pemberton and Foster offer some practical tips.
Address Underlying Issues
The first thing to understand is that peer pressure may lead to experimentation, but it doesn’t lead to addiction. That requires deeper problems, according to Pemberton. “My belief is that they get relief from something,” he says. “There’s depression, there’s anxiety, there’s a trauma, there’s a learning disability, there’s something else there that they end up self-medicating.”
If you think something’s going on, talk with a pediatrician, school counselor, therapist or other mental-health professional about the problems you perceive. “Catching them early is key,” Pemberton says.
Model Good Behavior
If the adults in your household drink responsibly, you don’t need to go on the wagon to set a good example. In fact, says Foster, kids need to see adults using alcohol responsibly. (They certainly see enough irresponsible drinking on television and in the movies.) “It’s important that kids grow up in environments where it’s either not there at all or it’s there and used responsibly,” he says.
So should parents who imbibe wait to drink until the kids are in bed? Foster doesn’t think so. “It’s better to have it out in the open and be able to talk about it than to sneak,” he says.
Modeling good behavior extends to prescription drugs. “We live in a world that answers a lot of questions with medication; in some ways it sends a bad message when kids see mom and dad take pills every day and we never tell them what that’s about,” says Pemberton. “I don’t want parents to say that medication is bad, but we need to spend the time to say medication is a tool and explain how that tool works.”
Communicate Early and Often
Communication shouldn’t end with prescription drugs, nor should it begin when kids reach their teens. “You can never start too early,” Foster says.
And you can’t talk too often, Pemberton says. Instead of having a big talk about substance abuse once a year, take advantage of teachable moments every week. “When you’re watching TV and something happens [related to substance abuse], pause the TV and say, ‘What just happened?’ ” he says. “The consistent conversations stick with people more than the in-depth conversation.”
Pemberton had one of those consistent conversations recently when he had to show his ID to buy some superglue. “My Cub Scout was with me,” he recalls. “It was the perfect opportunity to say, ‘Do you know why they won’t sell that without ID? It’s because if you inhaled it, bad things could happen.’ ”
Some might argue that Pemberton planted an idea in his 8-year-old’s head, but he disagrees. “The idea that if we don’t talk about it, they’ll never hear it is ludicrous. They’ve probably already sniffed the dry-erase markers at school (for fun, not to get high),” he says.
Look for Warning Signs
Despite your best efforts, your kids may still get in trouble. That means you should be on the lookout for physical and behavioral changes that could indicate a problem.
Physical signs can include weight change, a reduced energy level, or eyes that are red, bloodshot, dilated or glazed. Behavioral changes can include hanging out with a different crowd, having trouble in school or becoming withdrawn. “Parents just have to be more attentive as the kids get older and start to do things with more people in social settings,” Foster says.
You should also watch for signs that your kids are hiding something. Energy drinks can counter the effects of illicit drugs. Dark glasses can hide bloodshot eyes. Spray cologne can cover up the smell of cigarettes. That doesn’t mean a kid who uses a lot of Axe body spray is smoking, but you might start to wonder if he wears it all the time.
Get Help When Needed
Finally, get help soon if your child is drinking or using illicit drugs. “If parents catch it early enough, intervene and get the resources and help they need early on, the child can get back on the right track,” Foster says.
And don’t be too quick to point fingers. “Rather than saying, ‘You have a problem,’ say, ‘I’m scared that there’s a problem,’ ” Pemberton explains. “Then it becomes, ‘Let’s find a solution together’ versus putting the child on the defensive.”
Visit these sites for more information on signs, symptoms and treatment options:
- Partnership for a Drug-free America, drugfree.org
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, samhsa.gov
- Al-Anon and Alateen, al-anon.org
Find more strategies for raising your kids at SCOUTINGMAGAZINE.ORG/PARENTING.