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Derailing kids: Alcohol and drugs send children as young as 10 off-course

Published: Sunday, May 18 2014 4:10 a.m. MDT

Gomel criticizes parents who supply alcohol for kids and their friends on the theory that "they'd drink anyway but at least they're here and safe." He is blunt when talking to parents of his children's friends: "It is not OK for my kids to use alcohol, just so you know."

Khaleghi advocates parenting that is attentive and focused. Parents should look for the root of problem behavior and recognize that children who feel at ease in the world and can soothe themselves when they feel worried or challenged are less likely to use drugs or alcohol. Khaleghi said children with addictive, nervous traits need a strong support network so they won't fall prey to temptation or peer pressure.

"Addiction forms over time through a series of events. There are ways for parents to prevent and address addictive behavior," Khaleghi said. "Parents follow nutrition guidelines to create healthy eaters, read to kids to create lifelong learners and limit bad language around them to create respectful adults. Children take their cues and model behavior after what they witness at home."

Starting early

Start early is the advice from Rina Das Eiden, developmental psychologist and senior research scientist at State University of New York at Buffalo. When a parent soothes a fussy baby, chooses not to use physical punishment and meets a child's need for interaction, that parent is helping prevent substance abuse later, she said. Parents should know what's normal or not at a given age and create time for shared meals, interactions and open communication.

Children at a young age are tiny mirrors who reflect back the behaviors they see far more than the words they hear, Eiden said. She recommends a Family Check Up, available online at www.drugabuse.gov/family-checkup.

Videos show good and poor communication with a teenager, as well as tips that help parents work through strategies. "I really think this kind of online help is helpful for parents," said Eiden. "Kids know how to push your buttons, and it's difficult to not let yourself get emotionally worked up. But you can't really learn to communicate with your child or how to set limits for them unless you're calm."

Dr. Melissa Deuter, a psychiatrist in San Antonio, treats adolescents and young adults. She likes peer mentors for older kids. It helps to have sounding boards like counselors or youth ministers — "somebody who is not a parent and can't administer consequences," but who can help sort through the issue and offer sage advice.

Stick with real science, not scare tactics. The truth is serious enough. Drugs and alcohol can damage the brain. When Deuter's young patients say marijuana is harmless, she points out that pro-marijuana websites leave out that studies show it increases risk of schizophrenia onset. The sites don't mention it can alter hormone levels, so young men who smoke it heavily may become impotent, she said.

"The pro-marijuana lobby has worked hard to create the perception it's not a big deal. That's the message kids are getting. It causes cognitive changes in kids, and adolescents don't always see the nuances," said Wallace, who believes legalizing marijuana has increased drug use.

On the plus side, it may prompt better research, Deuter said. That happened with alcohol.

Roots of addiction

Khaleghi knows genetics may play a role in addictions; she saw it in her own family. "It was not my personal issue, but one I had to learn to cope with and understand," she said.

One in four people has someone in their lives who struggles with addiction, she said. Some don't recognize it. While society tries to figure out how to address addictions, a great deal is known about how addiction works and the brain chemistry behind it.

Khaleghi thinks people who use have higher levels of anxiety and when that becomes unmanageable, they use alcohol and drugs. The solution to addiction is discovering what one's self-medication issue is, she said. Effective treatments connect emotion and behavior.

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