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Ignorance is never bliss

When drugs are available, teens need to make choices. Drugs are not what they used to be. They are stronger and more affordable.

When drugs are available, teens need to make choices. (photo credit: BAR AMAR)

Substance abuse, which includes prescription medicine, street drugs and alcohol, is an important issue pertaining to the parenting of our children, regardless of age or social background.

It is a risk pervading our society, and we need to be proactive in educating ourselves about the subject – kids and parents alike.

In many ways, drug education today is reminiscent of sex education decades ago. If kids don’t get the information at home, in the classroom or from another reliable source, they will learn about it on the street. Such “disinformation” is extremely dangerous, even life-threatening.

It is our responsibility as parents to find out the real facts concerning so-called “recreational substances,” and to share that information with each other and our children. What we don’t know can and will hurt us! We understand that teens and young adults are subject to incredible pressures, perhaps more so than in previous generations. It is therefore especially important for us to be aware of the social influences in their lives.

Obviously, social media and pop culture play a huge part in their exposure to risky behaviors. Yet while it is easy to blame the media for many of our societal ills, such as cyberspace bullying and other harmful phenomena, it is also important to acknowledge the important function of the Internet and mass media as a potential educational resource.

This is definitely true for the topic of substance abuse. The information is there, but it is often controversial, contradictory and confusing. It sometimes requires work and open-mindedness to separate fact from fiction. Horror stories and chat rooms are not sufficient. Drug education should be reliable, informative and non-alarmist, especially if we want to be taken seriously by our children.

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that drugs are not what they used to be. They are stronger, more diverse and more accessible; they are also more affordable. As has been the trend for decades, cannabis and alcohol are the teen’s top drugs of choice.

This is well-known. But when was the last time anyone checked on the non-illicit medications in their medicine cabinet? In the US, for example, Sudafed, a common cold medication, had to be taken off the shelves and monitored due to its frequent use as a stimulant or in the making of methamphetamine, or crystal meth, a drug that has hit the US by storm.

Of course, alcohol, the drug of choice for adults, is the most readily available narcotic – and is usually the first mood-altering substance that kids experience.

Here in Israel, two cheap and highly accessible drugs go by the names of Hagigat and Mr. Nice Guy. They are both synthetic drugs made and sold locally; both are mild hallucinogens that may precipitate psychotic effects. In the past, they were completely legal and could be purchased at kiosks. Today they are no longer legally sold in stores, but you can still see signs on street corners and graffiti on walls with contact phone numbers.

Ecstasy, the infamous party drug, is a stimulant that is mostly used in clubs or large social events. It is sometimes disguised as candy to encourage use in younger children. Kids also experiment with inhalants in the home, and may wrongly assume that they are harmless, whereas they can cause serious brain damage.

Finally, there are a variety of date-rape drugs that can be placed in a drink without someone’s knowledge, for the purpose of facilitating an unsolicited sexual act. Note that this brief list is far from exhaustive.

What are the main reasons kids use drugs and alcohol? The Parent Toolkit website referenced at the end of our column indicates peer pressure, media influence, escape/self-medication, boredom, rebellion, instant gratification, insecurity and misinformation as the top eight reasons. It is therefore crucial for us to be aware of the red flags to alert parents that their teens may be involved in abusing substances.

Besides symptoms such as dilated pupils and red eyes, we should also be on guard for various behavioral cues. In a recent article on The Fix, a leading website on addiction and recovery, the author argues that risk-taking teens have a high drive to engage in exciting behaviors that release dopamine – the feel-good chemical. People need to be engaged and focused to release this chemical. Thus, if you notice that your teen is bored, beware – it is important that this boredom is channeled into positive activities rather than drug-taking.

Secondly, parents should ask themselves: How does your teen manage new situations? Of course some anxiety is natural, but when it turns into chronic, extreme stress, beware that drugs or alcohol are an alltoo- easy-to-obtain security blanket. It is also suggested that perfectionists and obsessive- compulsive people are prone to addictions.

High personal expectations and the expectations of parents can contribute to stress and frustration. We should be careful not to accentuate these pressures, and make it absolutely clear to our children that they are unconditionally loved.

While we all know that moodiness is normal in adolescents, long-lasting depression is not. Untreated depression and other mood disorders may lead to self-medication with drugs. It can work for a while… until it doesn’t.

Neither do we know enough about the early use of drugs and their effects on the still-developing brain. Some researchers have argued that the age of 21 is a significant cut-off point in brain development, hence the legislation around the drinking age.

Is your child socially isolated? Does she feel bullied, teased or ostracized? Of course, some children are more introverted than others. But it is important to differentiate personality traits from emotional disturbances. Social alienation is not normal, and it is important for parents to be aware of a teen’s social life, pressures and frustrations before things get out of hand.

Encourage your child to express emotion. Express your own emotions in appropriate ways that can serve as role modeling behaviors. If a child seems unable to express emotion, it may be a sign of trauma or a problem that needs professional attention. We would also add that sudden changes in behavior and aggression, either physical or verbal, should be monitored and could be related to drug use.

Of course, we want to believe that we can trust our kids, but often we don’t know where they are or what they are doing. We may be sleeping when they come home. Maybe they send us a text, but sometimes we need to hear their voice or greet them on their return. They need us not to trust them blindly. That could be the one thing that makes them think twice before making a poor choice.

It’s their safety net – and ours.

In the end, there are no strict guidelines about how to handle the topic of substance abuse with our children. Even professionals disagree about appropriate strategies. For example, what do we say to our kids if they ask us about our past drug use or even our current use of alcohol. Should we share?

And what do we think about a father who shares a beer with his teenage son while watching TV? Do we allow our kids to continue filling up their wine glass after kiddush on Friday night?

Truthfully, how many of our kids had their first drink at a very early age at synagogue during Purim or Simhat Torah?

Not very easy questions to answer. What do you think?

Resources

Besides the web site The Fix: Addiction and Recovery Straight Up, see the following sites on teens and drugs:

•  Drugs of Choice for Teens

•  Prescription Pills: The New Drug of Choice for Teens

•  Top 5 Most Common Drugs Used by Teens

•  The Adolescent Brain - Why Teenagers Think And Act Differently

Tracey Shipley CAAP, is a teen counselor and addiction specialist. She can be reached at 054-810-8918, jerusalemteencounseling@gmail.com; http://jerusalemteenteencounseling.net.

Judith Posner, PhD, is a social scientist, writer and researcher.