Experimenting with drugs or alcohol is not a rite of passage for teenagers. Trying weed or beer should never be shrugged off as an unavoidable part of adolescence.
In Jessica Lahey’s new book, The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence, we learn prevention can start as early as pre-school.
Allison Gilbert, Senior Writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, talks with Lahey for our ongoing Q&A series. In this discussion, you’ll learn the best strategies for keeping tweens and teens safe and on a healthy, successful path. The discussion has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Allison Gilbert: First, how do you define addiction?
Jessica Lahey: I define addiction, or substance use disorder, as someone who becomes dependent, someone who craves, someone who has problems stopping, using a chemical they put into their body.
AG: What might that look like for tweens and teens?
JL: As a teacher in high school and middle school, I’m always most worried when I see a dramatic change in my students. Loss of sleep. Loss of appetite. A sudden drop in grades. That kind of shift should be a conversation starter.
AG: You say prevention starts as early as pre-school. What do you mean?
JL: We need to have conversations from a very young age about health — things we take into our body and things we don’t. Why we spit out the toothpaste instead of swallowing it. Why Mommy’s name is written on the label for this drug, not Daddy’s name, or the child’s name, and why that is: This drug is specifically for Mommy’s height and weight and disease and the way her body works and not for someone else. A parent who’s had that conversation about prescription bottles will be a lot more likely to have that secondary conversation later on about why the opiates in the medicine cabinet are off-limits. And I promise these conversations get easier the more often we have them.
AG: We know adolescents are super learners and therefore test new limits. How can we support healthy experimentation while preventing risk-taking?
JL: Teenagers are so miraculous. When I think of teenagers in terms of their craving for novelty, craving for something a little bit exciting, I see that as a really positive thing. If we as parents understand that the process of becoming a young adult is all about separating from us (they’re still listening, they’re still allowing us to guide them) then, when it comes to risk, our job is to help guide them towards positive risk and guide them towards risk that might be more emotionally or intellectually brave. [Author note: Lahey points to “Follow Through,” REI’s short film about a young skier’s dream to conquer Utah’s most difficult backcountry terrain. Lahey says the movie highlights what she calls healthy risk-taking – the kind that comes from carefully considered preparation and planning.]
AG: What top three steps can parents take right now to protect their teen from addiction?
JL: First, the research is really clear: Parents who have a consistent message of total abstinence, until it is legal, that child is going to be less likely to have substance use disorder over their lifetime. Parents who are hoping to teach moderation or have a permissiveness around drinking, their teens are more likely to go on to be heavy drinkers or have substance use disorder. A lot of parents buy into the European myth, the idea that, just like the Europeans, if I give my kid some wine with dinner, I’ll just naturally raise moderate drinkers. The problem with that is the myth is not true.
Number two, and we discussed this a bit earlier: Talk to children early, have conversations from a very young age about health. When you’re at a family event, and Uncle Ted has to go outside to smoke his cigarette, a parent can ask: ‘Why do you think his wife doesn’t want him smoking cigarettes in the house? Well, she doesn’t want that smoke in the house because that smoke is not healthy.’ That can then lead to a conversation about why Ted makes the decision to smoke cigarettes.
Point three is, rather than saying, ‘Because I said so,’ which is never something that works very well, giving them the ‘why’ is so important. For example, a parent might talk about marijuana and how it interferes with memory, making it harder to remember things for that French vocabulary quiz next week.
AG: How have you found reducing stress useful?
JL: Often the way we respond to stresses, the way we respond to stressful situations, is the way our kids learn to handle stressful situations. The way my children learn best is when they watch me say, ‘This is a very stressful situation, and here’s how I’m going to take care of myself afterward: I’m going to shut off my phone at 5:00pm, and I’m not going to check my email after 5:00 pm. And I’m going to spend time with you having dinner because that’s what helps me feel better.’
AG: We know using drugs and alcohol is not a rite of passage into adulthood and many teens choose to remain substance-free. If parents suspect their teen is in trouble with drugs or alcohol, what’s the first step they should take?
JL: Parents have access to a lot of potential partners and reinforcements. Pediatricians can help screen for risky behaviors. School nurses and counselors are important resources. Parents can also reach out to community organizations, including local drug and alcohol treatment programs because these groups also have essential resources.
AG: Let’s talk about young adults. How do you advise parents to stay in the loop when their sons and daughters are in college or working out of the house?
JL: Teenagers cite their parents as one of the main places they get what they consider to be reliable information about health and safety and drug and alcohol use, even in college. They still listen to us.
For additional information about talking with teens about drugs and where to go to get professional help, check out: