Drug addiction – alcoholism – is it possible to do something from birth and before that first drink or drug experimentation that could make a difference for your child?
Most substance abuse prevention education for children doesn’t really begin until middle school or high school with some messaging in elementary school about the harm drugs can cause. Even then (in high school and elementary school), the focus is more on “don’t” than it is on “why you shouldn’t from a scientific, brain development” perspective. And as for parents, most do talk with their kids at some point about the importance of not drinking or using drugs. But the question for parents (given they can’t control school curriculum) is, “Can parents do more to help their child make healthier substance use decisions or possibly do it more effectively long before middle school?”
And, the answer is, “Yes.” The science behind the following four key messages, imparted in simple, easy-to-follow soundbites by parents to their children, can have a powerful impact on a child’s middle or high school decisions to use drugs or alcohol:
- The brain controls everything we think, feel, say and do, and goes through critical developmental stages from birth – 4, elementary school, and ages 12 – 25.
- Addiction (whether it’s to drugs or alcohol) is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. Addiction is not substance abuse (alcohol abuse is not alcoholism and drug abuse is not drug addiction). This is another helpful explanatory link on this concept, “Addiction and the Brain’s Pleasure Reward Pathway: Beyond Willpower.”
- Addiction is a developmental disease that most often starts in adolescence with substance abuse, which chemically and structurally changes the brain.
- These brain changes make a person more vulnerable to their risk factors. The five key risk factors are: genetics, social environment, childhood trauma, early use and mental illness. Several of these also change the brain’s circuitry during brain development from birth through early 20s (mental illness, childhood trauma and genetics, as examples).
Why these four concepts? These are facts that most of society do not fully understand. And there’s a reason for that. These facts were not understood until just this past decade, a decade known in the scientific study of the human brain as the Decade of Discovery. One of the most surprising discoveries to some parents is that childhood trauma, social environment, genetics – “things” going on in a child’s family from birth – actually change the way a child’s brain wires – develops. This is turn, can influence how a child perceives and interacts with the world because the brain controls EVERYTHING a person thinks, feels, says and does.
Therefore to give one’s child’s brain the best possible opportunities to develop in a healthy manner is to understand and do self-assessments of five key risk factors noted in #4 above. By preventing, minimizing and/or seeking help for these five key risk factors, parents go a long way to helping their child avoid substance abuse, drug addiction or alcoholism.
I’ll warn you – this is a long post – but you don’t have to take it all in at once. Parenting is a process – skim this for now, and then come back and explore the links to more fully absorb the concepts. In the end, it will be so worth it. Quoting from Sis Wenger’s November 15, 2011, article, “The Most at Risk: The Most Ignored,” appearing on Join Together / The Partnership at DrugFree.org’s website that day,
Today the alcohol/drug use prevention field is focusing on “environmental strategies,” which is an important part of preventing alcohol and drug use among our youth. Yet the primary environment that influences, for good or ill, the alcohol and drug use choices of today’s and tomorrow’s youth is the family, and most specifically the parents. [emphasis added] This is the environment that nurtures both society’s contributing adults and society’s most costly problems in education, health care, mental health, the work place, the justice system and the prison system.
Five Key Risk Factors for Developing Drug Addiction, Alcoholism
Childhood trauma — verbal, physical and/or emotional abuse — is one of the five key risk factors that contribute to a person developing the disease of addiction. Childhood trauma is often the result of being on the receiving end of the behaviors of a person with untreated, unhealthy discussed substance abuse, addiction or mental illness. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study in a Video Nutshell offers an excellent, 3-minute explanation of the connection between childhood trauma and brain development leading to mental health and substance abuse problems in children / teens / young adults.
What can parents do? Honestly assess (and then change as necessary) the interactions with significant others in the family – especially a spouse or co-parent. Because of the way a child’s brain develops, the portion (the cerebral cortex) that allows them to differentiate between what is about them and what is about the other person does not even begin to develop until around age 16. Until then, a child assumes the tension is something they’re not doing, not doing enough of – something they should be able to fix. Childhood trauma actually changes the way the developing brain wires. This link from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network further explains these concepts.
Genetics – it’s not that there is an “addiction gene,” but rather we all come with a genetic code that we inherit from our parents and in that code there may be lower levels of the liver enzymes that break down alcohol or lower levels of the dopamine neurotransmitter or its receptors which are necessary for pleasure/reward neural networks to function properly, as examples of genetic differences. There are roughly 20-25 thousand genes encoded in our DNA, “that switched on in the exact right place at the exact right time, give rise to this self-aware tangle of neurons [in the brain].” (Jonah Lehrer, “Scientists Map the Brain, Gene by Gene,” Wired Magazine: 17:04, 3.28.09) How those switch on influences a child’s predisposition to drug or alcohol misuse problems, among many other things, of course.
What can parents do? Look at the family history on both sides. Was their alcoholism or drug addiction in a grandparent or uncle? Did one or the other parent grow up in a household with heavy drinking – therefore experiencing their own brain developmental changes like those described above. Before your child reaches middle school, it’s important to explain drug addiction or alcoholism (using the opening links in numbers 1-4 above for background information) and this genetic predisposition concept as a reason your child should wait until their brain is more fully developed before experimenting with drinking.
Social environment — such as growing up in a home where heavy drinking is viewed as “normal” — is another of these five key risk factors. It comes into play when a young person views the heaving drinking as a drinking pattern to follow, yet a drinking pattern that may not necessarily work for that particular child because of that particular child’s brain wiring and/or genetics.
What can parents do?Be clear on what is considered “low-risk” or normal drinking and change drinking habits to fall within these limits. NIAAA’s Rethinking Drinking offers a great deal of information on drinking patterns and how to change them. Model low-risk drinking and consider not serving alcohol at child-centered events (birthday celebrations, for example).
Mental illness – such as depression or anxiety or ADHD are all brain changers in their own right. When a brain works differently, it changes the way a person thinks and feels and therefore their behaviors. Helping a child understand that mental illness is not bad or willful, rather a brain difference – the same way people have physical differences – and that it can be treated is critical. Additionally, understanding that chaos in the home, such as that associated with the causes of childhood trauma, actually changes brain wiring. It can cause a child to become depressed or anxious – to develop depression or anxiety.
What can parents do? Take actions similar to those noted under childhood trauma in the event of chaos in the home. Look at the family history for mental illness – if one exists, learn more about it because there can be a genetic component. Check out the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry’s website, “Talking to Kids About Mental Illness.”
Early Use – because of the brain development occurring from ages 12-25, early abuse of drugs or alcohol is especially problematic for the brain. The teen brain is not the brain of an adult, and thus it interacts differently with alcohol or drugs than does the adult brain. In fact, young people, ages 18-20, have the highest rate of alcoholism of any age group in the United States.
What Can Parents Do? Understand they are not doing their child any favors by “teaching” them to drink or experiment with marijuana at an early age. These three links will help parents better understand teen brain development and how drugs or alcohol affect the teen brain.
“A Parent’s Guide to the Teen Brain,” website by The Partnership at DrugFree.org
“How Teens Can Become Alcoholics Before Age 21,” blog post by Lisa Frederiksen
“It’s Just Marijuana…,” blog post by Lisa Frederiksen
A Lot to Take In
As I mentioned in the opening – this is a LOT to take in. In a nutshell – there are five key risk factors – entry points, if you will – that contribute to a child developing a substance abuse problem, drug addiction or alcoholism. These entry points are genetics, childhood trauma, social environment, mental illness and early use.
Getting out in front of these entry points – preventing, minimizing or correcting them – early on (before that first drink or drug use) can be one of the best things a parent can do to help their child avoid developing a drug or alcohol abuse problem or addiction. And please know – it’s never too late. I, myself, did not understand these concepts until my daughters were in their teens – that’s when we began these kinds of discussions. Nonetheless, they both report its helped them immensely – especially given how many of the risk factors they had (both are now in their mid-twenties).
If you have any individual questions, please don’t hesitate to email me at lisaf@BreakingTheCycles.com.
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