We all know people who are addicted to something, in fact, many of us of have had experiences with family members and addiction. It’s easy to make this assumption merely based on the statistics of addiction. At any given time nearly 10% of the population could use treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. Kids are much the same – and it’s not just drugs and alcohol parents need to worry about.
Addictions come in many flavors. There are the commonly known addictions of illegal drugs and alcohol, but there are also many other types. Kids are becoming addicted to Internet useage, social media, junk food, tobacco, gambling, prescription drugs, pornography and even TV!
So what really is an addiction? Put simply, it’s the use of anything that creates pleasure, needing more of the thing to maintain the level of pleasure, and continuing its use even if unpleasant consequences happen. Let’s look at a teenage boy who is playing video games. He starts innocently enough, playing WOW (World of Warcraft) for a few hours at a time. In the next few weeks he’s playing for longer and longer stretches of time. Eventually his grades slip and his parents are upset; yet he still continues gaming. He’s reached the point of addiction and may need help to quit.
Another example, a teenage girl slowly becomes withdrawn. Her usual smile is rarely seen, her friends aren’t around anymore, and her grades have dropped a bit. Mom just chalked it up to typical teenage nonsense until she noticed that her prescriptions were missing. Eventually she had a conversation with her daughter who admitted that she had become hooked on prescription medications. She’s addicted and needs help to quit.
Kids become addicted for many reasons. Some kids are trying to deal with a trauma that they don’t have the skills to cope with. Some kids have learned that using their substance of choice is the way to cope with life – yes, this even applies to internet addictions. They see what their parents do and they mimic it, without the willpower or decision making experience to know when to stop. Many kids are predisposed to becoming addicted to something based upon their genetic makeup. Add a stressful situation, lack of knowledge about addictions, and a poorly developed decision making center in their brains and addictions are a real possibility.
How are parents to know that their child has developed an addiction? Like in the stories above, there are some signs to look for: missing money, withdrawal from friends & family, an intense preoccupation with something (computer, phone), anxiety, trouble in school, dropping grades. Also look for a change in their social circles and their grooming habits. Parents, use your intuition. If you think there’s a problem – there very well may be. You know your child better than anyone else could. Trust your instincts.
As with so many things, prevention is key. Just like it’s easier to watch what you’re eating before you gain 20 pounds, similarly it’s easier to stop an addiction in your child before it sets in. Beware, these things will sneak up on you (and your kids). Here are a few tips that you can use to help prevent addiction.
The best thing that you can do is to know your child’s friends. Being able to communicate with her friends will alert you to many things. A shift in friends is a sign that your child may be struggling. If you’ve opened up the paths of communication with your child’s friends, they may very well come to you when they’re concerned about your child. Be a welcoming parent, not only to your kids, but to their peers as well. Talk to them, ask their opinions on life, and show that you’re interested in them. Create a relationship. Don’t just be Sally’s mom, be Sally’s mom who really cares about her friends. It will enrich your life and help keep your child safe.
Don’t be afraid to look through your child’s social media accounts. Insist on knowing their passwords. Be friends on social media. Grab their phones, computers or tablets on a regular basis (without warning!) and look through them. If you think your child is struggling with internet, pornography or social media addiction then restrict their access. Naturally, they need some internet access for school. However, this is usually a minimal amount of time, and certainly schools do not require kids to have smartphones. If there are terms in the chat that you don’t understand, ask google. If that doesn’t work, ask your child’s school counselor, as they are usually pretty savvy on the current internet terms as well.
Teach your child some healthy coping skills. Set a good example and don’t go running for a beer every time you’re upset. Instead go for a walk, take a shower, read a book. Lead by example! Enroll your child in sports, clubs, church activities, scouting or another community group. Let them find healthy outlets for their concerns and stressors.
Set boundaries for your child. Don’t be afraid to, even for teenagers. For many children & teens the world is still a little scary and knowing that you are there making certain that they are in safe waters is reassuring. Set curfews and enforce them. Check in and make sure parents are around when you have been told they are. You don’t need to do this every time, but without warning, randomly, check. And let your kids know that you’re checking on them. Many times kids are so grateful to be able to honestly say to their peers, “I can’t do that, my mom checks on me, and she would kill me.”
Similarly, there are drug kits that you can purchase to test your child. The can be extremely accurate. Even if you don’t use them, it’s great to be able to give your child that face-saving out. They can say to their friends, “I can’t do that, my mom is planning on drug testing me.” Let your child know that they can use you as a reason not to do something any time! Sometimes kids really need to be able to blame someone for their reluctance to follow the crowd. Be their reason any time they need it. Tell them that it’s OK with you and encourage them to do so when needed.
Most importantly, talk to your child. Develop a relationship with your child. Get to know your child’s dreams and goals. Be there when they’re struggling, and let them know it’s OK to experience failure in life, that you will support them as they pick themselves up and try again. I’m not saying that you need to be their “friend”, but rather that they need to know that you are there for them at all times. You might think it’s obvious, but your kids need to hear you tell them that it’s OK to be wrong, that it’s OK to make serious mistakes, and that it’s OK to outright fail. They need to hear you say that nothing that they would do would make you love them less. As my dad used to say, “I might not like your actions, but I will always love you and always be there for you.” 20 years later it still resonates.
If you suspect an addiction, talk to them. Ask your child if they think they might need help. Be sympathetic and nonjudgmental. Have a plan to help them, and be transparent. They need to know that you will be there for them, that you still love and value them, and that you can handle this. And you can.
One important note: if you strongly suspect your child is struggling with addiction to substances there is an important step you need to take immediately to prevent a tough time from becoming a catastrophe. Take away their driving privileges. Take away the car keys, disable the car, whatever it takes to keep them out from behind the wheel until you’re certain what’s going on. It’s better to be overly cautious and apologize for it later, than to ignore the signs and end up unable to apologize due to a tragedy.
If you do find that your child is struggling with addiction, don’t panic. There is plenty of help out there that works. Start with your pediatrician – find out if there would be physical ramification from ceasing their addiction. Be aware that some addictions need to slowly be ended – many drug and alcohol addictions need medical supervision. Then look for community supports and therapists. Again, your pediatrician can be a great resource, as can your school counselor. Look to them for recommendations for counselors. Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are open to teens. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been shows to be effective, as have many other modalities. Look for a counselor who specializes in addiction.
Let your child know that you are there for them and that you are a team fighting this. Don’t blame them or yourself. Just focus on the problem to be solved and try and forgive yourself and them. There is plenty of good help out there and, once you are aware of the problem, it can be resolved.
Also see Alcohol & Kids – 4th of July Edition for some more tips on talking with your kids about alcohol.