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I have been approached by parents time and again asking what they can do to prevent their children from becoming addicts – which is a different conversation from asking what they can do to spot the signs of using or get their child help.  Many books have been written on this subject and there is a lot of information available online. As usual, I’ll begin this blog with some personal stories from my life as an adolescent drug user.

I remember my first acid trip, at twelve, as something magical. By high school I was pulling books on drugs and addiction off the library shelf. Each book was filled with sociological evidence of the trajectory of drug use. Marijuana led to heroin addiction, criminal behavior and prostitution. I wrote it off as propaganda. Besides, despite fitting the profile for a potential substance abuser, I was confident I’d be the exception to the rule. Sixteen years later I went to rehab.

For clarity, I will say that mine wasn’t an immediate downward spiral into the perils of active addiction. It was more a full-steam-ahead approach to life that included a lot of fun and adventure in which drugs were always present.  Occasionally I’d attempt to control whatever I’d been abusing or switch to milder drugs. Giving up drugs didn’t occur to me.

The price of addiction is always loss and over the years the price kept escalating. I lost jobs, friends, apartments and, at times, my health. Drugs kept me away from my family and many of my friends died. I was lost from myself, directionless and drifting. For years, a constant underlying despair accompanied me and I was always trying to eradicate it with a substance. I never stepped off the ride until it became a  choice between life and death.

Like I said, it wasn’t a one-way street to hell after the first time I got drunk at the roller skating arena in 1972. (btw the gateway drug for all addicts is alcohol. I guess it slipped the minds of researchers when they came up with the term “gateway drug”). The progression of my drug use, like most addicts, occurred over time.

Not everyone who takes drugs is an addict. There are people who drink or get high recreationally, who can take it or leave it. There are substance abusers who may party hard for a year or two and then get it together and move on (without any outside help), and others who catch themselves before they become full-blown addicts and seek professional help to get it under control. And then there are addicts for whom control is not possible.

I have compiled this list of helpful tips based on my personal philosophy with parents of young children in mind. I’ve also included help for the family of using addicts.

Openness: Kids will censor information if they believe it is unwise not to. They intuitively know if what they say will worry or upset the adult so they will suck up their feelings to protect the parent. Children want to be loved unconditionally – exactly as they are. Judgment and criticism is a form of rejection. They are acutely aware of every time they have heard a parent criticize or judge others so they may not feel safe expressing their true feelings and fears.

Communication: By learning how to process emotion and walk through fear and uncertainty early on, they won’t seek comfort from something external. If you have very young children, raise them in a household where everyone is safe to express their true feelings. If this has not been the case and you cannot get your children to open up to you (when your heart knows something is going on) make sure they have someone they feel safe talking to (a relative, teacher or therapist).**** If there has been abuse, trauma, or active alcoholism/addiction in the home, get professional help.

Belonging: If they’re unable to bond at their school or feel like an outsider, find clubs and activities where they can meet friends with similar interests. The feeling of “other” is common among addicts.

Be the parent: Children need boundaries, rules and codes of ethics. They are also brilliant bullshit detectors. It can’t be a “do as I say and not as I do” situation. Children don’t want to know about a parent’s sex life or hear glory tales of drug use only to be later told, “Sex is bad. Drugs are bad.” If you are confused how to draw from personal experience in a positive honest and healthy way, ask a professional or seek out community parent groups. (If you feel shame about your own past, it’s time for you to do some work to gain acceptance and forgiveness. I’m a big believer in therapy but people also heal in support groups, 12 step programs. Speakers and workshops by people like Marianne Williamson, Melanie Beatty, Deepak Chopra, and Louise Haye have helped thousands. There are many avenues to seek help getting right with yourself so that you can be 100% available to your child.)

Validate: Praise every triumph, encourage every effort, and remind your children that they are perfect and wonderful whether they come in first or last on the sports team, whether they get A’s or D’s. Showing up and giving it your best after a disappointment is praiseworthy. D’s can turn to A’s with extra help and perseverance. Raising children with a sense of self and self-worth gives them a strong emotional foundation and make them less likely to fall to peer pressure or seek comfort in substances.

For loved ones: Active addiction affects everyone in the family. Al Anon and Alateen are 12 Step fellowships that offer support and tools for healthy coping. (Google for information and local meetings). Http://www.intherooms.com is a website where you can connect with other people who can share experience, strength and hope. They also have live video online meetings.

Helping the addict: Interventions can help get an addict into treatment before they hit bottom. It’s true they may agree to go to get the family off their back, to keep financial support coming in, or for any number of reasons without any genuine desire to get clean but often a spark of hope is awakened while in treatment and they may choose recovery for themselves. Rarely is an addict exposed to recovery able to go back to using without carrying the knowledge that there is another way to live. Even after a relapse, many addicts will return to recovery.

Powerlessness: We cannot get anyone clean but we can instill hope and let them know they have a choice. In the end, recovery will always be a personal decision.

I know for an addict to want recovery, the desire has to be in their heart – but desire without action is fantasy. Talking about, thinking about, or preparing to get clean is a game many addicts play to either get someone off their back or to give themselves the illusion that they are doing something about their problem. What is always behind this lack of momentum is fear. Addicts can look down the barrel of a loaded shotgun but they cannot handle emotional discomfort. Despite what I used to think when I was using, I got high over my feelings – to avoid them and to numb them.  If you raise your children to embrace their emotions, they will not fear them – and hopefully won’t have the need to find an external substance to manage them.

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Patty is a nationally recognized certified recovery coach and writer. She lives in New York City.

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