Drug prevention advice for parents
How to talk to kids responsibly about drugs.
Maia Szalavitz is widely viewed as one of the premier American journalists covering addiction and drugs. A neuroscience writer for TIME.com and a former cocaine and heroin addict, she understands the science and its personal dimensions in a way that few others can. is the first book-length exposé of the "tough love" business that dominates addiction treatment. Her newest book is Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction.
MAIA SZALAVITZ: I think it's really important for parents to realize that the majority of kids are going to experiment with drugs and alcohol (typically marijuana and alcohol), long before you would like them to. Do not freak out if this happens, because the vast majority of them are not going to have a problem. And although a lot of people would say "Get them into treatment," et cetera, the problem is that our treatment centers put the marijuana users in with the heroin and cocaine users and you're basically taking your kid out of a bad peer group and putting them into a, for lack of a better word, worse peer group. And this is not what you want to do if your kid doesn't actually have a problem. So you want to be very careful with anybody who's telling you to do something extreme like "get your kid kidnapped" and "there are wilderness programs and emotional boarding schools" and all kinds of "tough love" places that actually do a lot of harm to kids and parents.
So unfortunately, because of the bad nature of our treatment system, it's not like you can "just in case." You can end up doing harm by trying to help, and that is a real issue. But what I would say for parents is that the real risk factors for kids to have serious problems are: having a mental illness, having a history of severe trauma, and having some kind of outlying temperament. So if your kid is especially impulsive or has ADHD or is adopted and was in a horrible orphanage for their first years of life, these are going to raise their risk. And what parents can do most importantly is to, as much as they can, to make kids feel loved, comfortable and safe. And that's not always easy with the teenagers, and it doesn't always, you know, there's lots of wonderful parents who have addicted kids, but if the kid feels safe to come to you if they run into a problem, that is what you want in terms of—that's the best thing you can have, in terms of prevention.
And one of the other things I say to kids is: you shouldn't try things, but if you do try something and it's the best thing ever, that is a warning sign. That means do not dive in head first and go for it, because that is where the problems develop. There's a lot of people, the people who don't have addiction problems they get exposed to a drug that's like "the best thing ever" and they say, "Oh my God I better not do this again because this could ruin my life." And this is why addiction is such a complicated problem, because you would think that overwhelming pleasure would just take over everybody, but most people have meaningful lives that they don't want to lose and that they don't want to ruin. And when they see a sort of instant bliss experience it says "Whoa, I better not mess with this; I can just lose myself in this." So fortunately that is the response of the majority of people. And also fortunately most people do not find most drugs, even opiates, overwhelmingly euphoric. The response is hugely varied in relation to your genes and to the setting in which you take the drugs and all kinds of other things.
So, it's really important to recognize that this is a developmental thing, and the truth is that in your teens and in your early 20s is when you are at highest risk. And the other advice I always like to give parents is to be honest and to try to get kids to delay as long as possible, just like you would do with sex probably. Because their brains are growing, and the more time they have to develop other coping skills and the more time they have to sort of complete the development of their prefrontal cortex the less likely they will be to get into trouble. Because if you don't develop an addiction by your mid 20s, like 90 percent of all addictions occur, you know, start in that time; if you don't do that your odds of getting addicted are like single digits. It's really low.
- The majority of kids are going to experiment with drugs at some point in their lives, mostly in their teens and early 20s.
- While many parents might balk at allowing their children to experiment, it's important to remember that not all drugs are the same.
- There are some warning signs, however. Neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz walks us through some of the signs to look out for.
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