It’s no secret that substance use, especially among teens and young adults, is a major issue these days. Most efforts are focused on either reducing the drug supply or treating the consequences of drug addiction. In terms of reducing supply, our thinking seems to be that if we can keep the substances regulated, out of the country altogether or intercept the illegal distribution lines then we will have less drug use. There’s a reasonable logic to that approach but long-term it is a losing battle because there is a seemingly infinite supply of illicit and prescription drugs waiting to be poured into the consumer pipeline.
But what if we focused more on the demand side of the equation? The best preventative means that we have against future addiction in our youth is to help create a protective barrier against substance addiction in the earliest stages of a child’s development. Neuroscience has given us valuable insights into how important the first three years of brain development is for a child.
Interaction Builds a Child’s Brain
We know that reliable, consistent and caring relationships with adults are critical for healthy brain development in a child. These relationships provide what is sometime called “serve and return” interactions between the child and adult. The child does the “serving” through making sounds, eye contact and gestures — their primary ways of communicating in those early months of life. The adult caregiver does the “returning” by responding to those forms of communication with receptive eye contact, gestures, words and hugs. When the caregiver accurately interprets and appropriately responds to the child’s signals, not only is a secure relationship being built between the parent and child but neural pathways in the brain are being built as well. These paths form the foundation for all learning, behavior and health for that child’s life now and into adulthood.
Impairments to Healthy Brain Development
When those serve-and-return interactions are infrequent or don’t exist because the child is neglected, abused or exposed to substance abuse, mental illness, terrorizing experiences or an absent parent it shuts down the development of a lot of those neural pathways. Instead of positive stimulation, which builds healthy neural connections, harmful stress hormones are released that can disrupt physical, mental and emotional health as the child grows. The more adversity a child faces in those early years, the more likely he or she will be to experience physical, emotional and mental problems later in life. These problems — which include depression, anxiety, eating disorders, insomnia, many physical conditions and virtually all forms of addiction — can be viewed as largely originating in the child’s early exposure to trauma in one form or another.
There is a lot of research that confirm the idea that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in the early years of life are a major factor in the development of substance use disorders. So, viewed from this angle, substance use is not merely a diagnosable condition but a symptom of the inner pain and brokenness the person feels on a regular basis. The drugs dull the inner pain, making life more tolerable than it would be otherwise.
How to Keep Kids Off Drugs
So back to addiction prevention for children and teens: If we want to reduce the demand for substances and create an environment that is protective against addictive behaviors in the younger generation, I propose that we put more of our energy into helping parents create those nurturing serve-and-return relationships with their very young children. Here are three important ways parents can begin that process:
- Be attentive and responsive to your child’s needs. Their immediate needs often involve providing closeness, reassurance, food, diaper-changing or comfort. Respond quickly with a warm, nurturing presence and voice. This helps a child feel safe and secure and sends the message that it’s okay to have needs and to ask for them to be met.
- Be generous with holding, touching and snuggling with your child. Gentle, appropriate and caring touch is a critical need for young children. Touch is the lifeline to a secure attachment between parent and child but also for toddlers and preschoolers. Touch provides reassurance, builds trust and fosters contentment in your child.
- Be careful not to overstimulate your child. If you watch your child’s communication signals closely you will be able to tell when they’re feeling overstimulated or stressed. For example, they might turn away, cry, cover their face, become upset or seem frustrated. This is your cue to reduce the stimulation by moving to another room, holding the child or preparing them for sleep.
These parental skills are only a starting point for reducing the risk of substance use later in life. But, parents who start off with this type of attunement to their child’s needs have a much greater likelihood of creating a secure parent-child relationship, a healthy brain and resilience to normal life adversity. With those rich relational, emotional and physical resources in place, you’re giving your child the best hedge against addiction possible.