Drug Addiction – Alcoholism – Can Parents Help Their Child Avoid It?

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?

Drug Addiction - Alcoholism - Can Parents Help Their Child Avoid It?

Drug addiction – alcoholism. Childhood trauma can actually change the way a child’s brain develops, making them more vulnerable to substance abuse in adolescence or young adulthood. See “Childhood Trauma” – one of the five key risk factors – described below.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. Addiction is a developmental disease that most often starts in adolescence with substance abuse, which chemically and structurally changes the brain.
  4. 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.

If you’d like to comment on this post or share it, please click on the post title at the top of the article. My apologies for the inconvenience, but I really appreciate your participation!

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

22 Responses to Drug Addiction – Alcoholism – Can Parents Help Their Child Avoid It?

  1. Great post Lisa on helping parents understand the concepts of addiction and how they can help their children. It is a complicated disease with many misconceptions. This line – “alcohol abuse is not alcoholism and drug abuse is not drug addiction” – is an important distinction to make that is confusing to many, especially when you are at the beginning of realizing that you have substance abuse or addiction going on in your family. Thanks for sharing such important information.

  2. BarbaraJPeters says:

    Great post. Thank you for all that you do to make people aware of such an important issue. Parents need to be made aware of the differences and how they can help their children.

  3. Catherine says:

    Some great tips for us to help the young ppl

  4. This is definately a post for me to bookmark. As a parent I am always keen to read up on ways to help my children make the right choices about alcohol and drugs. And as a recovering alcoholic I am interested in the possible genetic influence.
    I’m was so glad to read ‘don’t teach them to experiment with drugs/drink at an early age.’ Many parents do think it is okay to introduce both of these as a way of normalising, but as rightly point out, the young brain isn’t developed enough to handle it.
    Brilliant post Lisa!

    • Thanks so much, Carolyn!! It’s a lot to take in, to be sure, but boy – if we can break the cycle – what a gift we give our children. I’m so grateful that it seems to have worked for my own daughters. I appreciate your comment.

  5. Ruth Hegarty says:

    All parents should have a copy of this post. I don’t think we realize just what a huge impact seemingly normal environmental factors have on future alcoholism. By “normal” I mean that while reading this post I remembered so many events from my childhood that seemed normal at the time that fit your list of contributing factors. Thanks for the education!

  6. Lots of great information, once again, Lisa. I am going to send your article to my daughter even though her kids are still elementary age. Thanks for all you are contributing to our knowledge of this!

  7. Karla Campos says:

    Amazing post! Definitely a lot of information but very well organized and easy to comprehend. As a parent I learned a lot and I am very grateful to you for writing this, have an amazing day and keep up the great work!

  8. Ally Estes says:

    This is one I will be saving as well! Being a mom of 3, one who is 12 yrs old, I often think about the years ahead and being a good parent. Thanks Lisa for sharing this information. I know that I will be referencing it often and am looking forward to reading more!

  9. As a life coach for parents of kids in treatment, I would love nothing more than to become obsolete. Oh don’t worry about me, I’ll find something else to do. 🙂 I look forward to the day when the information you share here becomes more common knowledge, and is put into practice by many parents early on in the life of their children. Thereby eliminating lots of pain for at least some people! Thanks for all you.

  10. Lorrie says:

    What a fabulously comprehensive list of risks and symptoms. Very useful. Thank you!

  11. Darris says:

    Excellent information Lisa! There is so much misinformation out there that I see parents either zone out and give up or pretend it isn’t happening. Or worse, think that it won’t happen to their kid!
    Your site and information are invaluable, thank you!

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