Almost weekly now, we hear the sad news of another teen death from an accidental overdose. We know personally the pain of addiction. Addiction is a disease based on biochemical abnormalities, and it should be treated as a disease, not a crime. The epidemic is a combination of biochemical abnormalities, potency of the drug available, the collapse of the family unit and lack of education.
Prevention is much easier than treating the addiction. Waiting to educate your child about drugs until they are 13 or 14 years old is too late. In our experience, many addicted teens started using alcohol at age 9 or 10, then went to more potent drugs. Teaching children to absolutely fear taking drugs, other than medicinally, with permission of a parent, needs to start as young as 5 or 6 years old. Keep it simple for young kids, but be serious. Bend down and look into their eyes when you mean business. You might say, "Never ever take a pill or any medicine from anyone, not even a friend, no matter what they tell you. You can become addicted! You could die!" Does the child know what that means? Probably not yet, but they know the tone of your voice and the energy of your words. As they get older, you can discuss more extensively.
Based on our experience treating 400 opiate addicted teens, we recommend the following 10 tips to try to prevent drug addiction in your child:
1. Be supportive.
This is especially true before a child has a problem. Try to support everything positive in your child's life—good grades, being great at a sport or hobby, helping out a friend or relative—make sure they know you notice the positives! This reinforces the concept of positive behaviors leading to positive reinforcement. Don't rely on teachers, friends or others to support your child's good behavior. If your child becomes addicted, be supportive of treatment; they'll work hard at it. Make sure your child knows you will be there rewarding sobriety. No enabling! Save rewards like cell phones, clothes, etc., until they're actually earned.
2. Teach your child negative actions have consequences.
It's the parents that help build a sense of right and wrong in a child's brain because they are the most important authority figures for children. Parents ask us all the time what we would do if our child acted out. Our reply is—what would your parents do? It resonates when they realize that they are less strict than their parents were. Keep in mind that being strict is not the same as being "mean."
3. Randomly drug test if you have any suspicion of drug use.
It's not mean to drug test an addicted child! But it's a big mistake to assume that your child "could never" be involved with drugs, or they are "too young." Drug tests can be bought at discount pharmacies for a relatively small cost. Explain to your child that you are doing this for their well-being, and you will all feel better if it comes back negative. If they say that drug testing them means you don't trust them, your reply should be that trust is earned! Better safe than sorry, right? Many teens initially protest, but if they realize that drug testing is the way it's going to be, they'll likely cooperate. A test is a good way to catch addiction at an early stage; it can also prevent it.
4. Educate yourself about the signs of drug addiction.
Make sure any unusual behavior in your child has an explanation. You are the best observers of unusual behavior, not the school, not your doctor and not other authority figures. If you aren't sure whether something is a sign of addiction, do a drug test.
5. Be involved in your child's life.
Become involved in their sports, their hobbies, their interests and at school. Reward the good behavior, and teach the consequences of bad behavior. Trust us, it's much more fun to be involved in sports and hobbies than to be involved in lawyer visits, court dates and counseling.
6. Don't assume it couldn't happen to your family.
Addiction doesn't discriminate, it cuts across all social and economic levels, races and religions, and it can happen in any family. Since the underlying problem is in most cases biochemical, it can happen to anyone. Believing it can't possibly happen in your family could be your biggest mistake.
7. Be the best parent you can be.
We're not perfect, but good parenting is selfless. It's a balance of rewarding good behavior, teaching the consequences of bad behavior and being involved in your child's life. Being overprotective, overly punishing, too permissive or absent can only increase the possibilities of a teen who is prone to addiction (because of the biochemical problem that may already exist) becoming addicted.
8. Keep your eyes open for signs of abuse by friends or relatives.
Abused children have a higher risk of addiction. If your child acts strange around a relative or friend or seems to not want to be around them, this could be a danger sign. Abusers usually threaten if silence is broken, so kids won't tell you. That's why it's important to pay close attention to how children react around certain people. Abuse doesn't discriminate either and is pervasive in our society at all levels.
9. Build self-esteem in your child.
Low self-esteem and a biochemical propensity for addiction is a lethal combination. Self-esteem issues are pervasive in addicted teenagers and need to be treated with counseling. Like I said before, be involved in their lives and reward good behaviors. We're not all born good-looking, smart or with perfect bodies. Some of us have emotional issues and lack social skills. It is up to us as parents to find the good in our children and build on it. Everyone has positive qualities, and it is up to us to bring out their best.
10. NEVER take drugs with your child.
Your child shouldn't be your friend in the same way you are friends with other adults. It's true that sometimes a child can be like a friend, but a teenager may find this confusing. They might believe they should be able to do whatever you do, but your respect is on the line! If they become addicted, they'll likely have issues of anger and guilt and could blame you for a part of their addiction. You, on the other hand, will definitely have issues of guilt and will blame yourself for part of their addiction. We have yet to see a child who did drugs with a parent who in the long run thought it was a positive experience.
Drs. Ron and Cherie Santasiero have more than 60 combined years in medicine. They treat addicted teens by offering integrative care at their practice, The Sedona Holistic Medical Centre, and are authors of "Addicted Kids; Our Lost Generation: An Integrative Approach to Understanding and Treating Addicted Teens."