Ten years ago, my college-age daughter fell into addiction’s arms, taking our family on a ride through hell. At the time, it was unthinkable that a child of mine could become addicted to methamphetamine. I mean, that didn’t happen to “nice” people, right?
To my way of thinking, addiction happened to other people — people who couldn’t control their lives or their behavior. So when I found myself in that pit of despair the first thing on my lips was the resounding question that all parents with an addicted child ask themselves: What did I do wrong? What did I miss, leave out, do too much of or completely screw up?
I knew in my mind and in my heart that I’d been a good parent. Not perfect by any means, but I’d given it everything I had, every day. My husband and I had been there for both our daughter and our son. We were engaged in their lives, attentive to their many needs and we talked about absolutely everything with our children: We definitely had open lines of communication. So how did one child venture down such a precarious path towards destruction and the other not? They both had the same parents, the same upbringing, the same rules.
Blaming the Parents
In our society, we are quick to judge parents for the mishaps of their children, especially when substances are involved. Yet what the experts tell us is this: True addiction is no one’s fault. No more than cancer, heart disease or diabetes is someone’s fault. Furthermore, Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, the 12-step programs for families with a loved one in the throes of addiction, offer this cornerstone slogan: “I didn’t cause, I can’t control it, I can’t cure it.”
So while the news is often scary for parents who have a child in active addiction, at least we can be spared carrying the guilt of somehow “ruining” our kid. I sure found relief in that truth. Yet when I speak publicly in schools, churches and community groups, I see worried faces — sometimes even tear-stained faces — of parents with young children. They especially want to know what they can do to prevent the horror of addiction from ever happening to their own precious little ones.
While heredity is associated with many diseases, including addiction, lifestyle often plays a key role as well. For example, the connection between smoking and various cancers is well-known, as is the connection between diet and type 2 diabetes. And we of course know that diet and exercise affect heart health. It is similar with addiction. There are risk factors and behaviors that can increase the chances for someone to develop this complex brain disease.
Just as we do for so many threats our child might face, parents can use their influence to try and mitigate the risk. While there’s currently no blood or urine test or brain scan to determine one’s vulnerability to addiction, there are four major risk factors. So in considering the odds of whether your child will become an addict, ask yourself:
- Is there a family history of substance abuse? Substance abuse and addiction tend to run in families. While genetic predisposition for addiction does not alone determine the future of who will become addicted, it is a predictor. Parents need to educate their children if they are at heightened risk, and abstinence from alcohol and other drugs needs to be encouraged. This can be a daunting task, especially given the pressures that young people, face but awareness of a family history is important.
- Does your child have easy access to drugs, alcohol and tobacco? Many people don’t realize that addiction is primarily a disease of adolescence. The seeds of addiction, for the majority of sufferers, are sown in the teenage years. In fact, the average age of onset for most people who identify as addicts is 12. We know that teens who begin using alcohol before the age of fifteen are five times more likely to develop an addiction in their lifetime than teens who abstain.
Neuroscientists now teach about the unique vulnerability of the developing teenage brain. Defined as ages 12 to 24, this is the time when substances can wreak the most havoc and set a person up for a lifetime of use. Drugs simply impact teens differently than they do adults. For example, 9% of those who use marijuana develop dependence, and of those who start in their teens, 17% become dependent. It’s concerning that surveys show about four out of five college students consume alcohol and half of them report binge drinking in the last 30 days. While we often think of this demographic as young adults, they still have developing adolescent brains, making college campuses virtual breeding grounds for addiction.
- Does your child have a mental illness? About half of people who meet the definition for an addiction also suffer from what is called a “co-occurring disorder.” Accordingly, young people with ADHD, depression, anxiety, mood disorders, schizophrenia or other mental illnesses are at heightened risk for addiction. Parents need to ensure their children receive proper treatment and counseling for mental health issues, lessening the chances a child will self-medicate with illicit drugs or alcohol. Addiction, which is a type of mental disorder, is not something to ignore, wish away or assume a child will outgrow.
- What kind of home environment do you provide? Homes where drugs and alcohol are present tend to influence whether or not a young person experiments with substances. While I have seen plenty of families where a child grows up in a drug-and-alcohol-free home and he or she still develops addiction issues, parental behavior nevertheless remains an important influencer. It’s been reported that we do what the five people closest to us do, so a young person’s peer group is also a powerful influencer. The long-standing wisdom that parents need to keep tabs on their children’s friends is well-founded. There is also a link between addiction and early childhood trauma such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
In the end, no one can control the choices and behavior of another, not even a parent over a child. Children will make their choices and many argue that teens will experiment with alcohol and other drugs regardless of what we do as parents. That is likely true for some. But drug prevention strategies in the home can still help to mitigate damage. Even if we can do nothing more than to delay the onset of use until adulthood, we can improve the outcomes for many of our children.