by an addiction certified doctor who is also in recovery and a parent of three.
Chemical Dependence, or Addiction, often occurs in individuals who have a genetic predisposition to develop the disease. Often we say “Genetics loads the gun, and Environment pulls the trigger. So, often parents ask, what can they do to protect their children, especially if they have a family history of addiction.
Obviously we can’t choose our parents, and we can’t do anything about our “genetic load”, but there are some things we know can help reduce the likelihood of young people developing addiction.
First, let’s address some RISK factors for developing the disease. Positive family history for addiction is a risk factor, and we already mentioned that there isn’t anything we can do about that. Children with mood disorders, learning disorders, low self-esteem and poor school performance are at greater risk. As are those who are in dysfunctional families and those who engage in early sexual activity. Easy availability of substances in the community also predicts greater risk. Drug and alcohol using peers is a risk factor. Keeping tabs on who your child’s friends are is in my opinion good parenting! Although I can tell you my own children were sometimes put off by my efforts in this regard! Lastly, early use of substances, or what we call First Initiation Age, correlates with risk to develop alcohol and other drug use disorders.
For instance, if you compare teens who have their first drink at age 14 or younger to those individuals who wait until they are 21 to drink, the younger drinkers are 4 ½ times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than those who delay their drinking. While this is a powerful predictor, it’s also noteworthy that MOST young people do begin drinking before they are 21.
I must mention here a word of caution about these risk factors and the protective factors that follow. These are not necessarily cause and effect. That is, we can’t say for sure that one leads to the other. Rather, we can say that these are associated with substance issues. We don’t always know which came first, the chicken or the egg. In addition, we know that certain mood disorders, if present, are more common in the chemically dependent population.
In addition, there are confounding variables. When we list the protective factors, you will see that one of the protective elements is young people in church youth groups are about 50% less likely to use alcohol or other drugs than those not in church youth groups. While the youth group itself likely plays some role in this, parents in church youth groups are doing other things in the home that aren’t showing up on the study. (Nonetheless, with the strong family history my children have, we played the odds, and all 3 of my daughters were in church youth groups!)
Okay, so what might protect our children? We mentioned the church youth group issue above. In addition, families who eat more meals together have shown a reduced risk of their children developing alcohol or other drug problems.
Strong family bonds, parental engagement, and strong pro-social bonds are protective. In addition, clear expectations and consequences and conventional norms about alcohol and drugs reduce the risks. Religious and/or spiritual affiliation is related to the youth group issue discussed above.
The counter-part to the age of first use applies here. That is, the longer a young person waits to initiate drinking, the less risk they incur for developing a drinking problem.
Lastly, I personally know that my own recovery was a factor because of the development of a spiritual belief system. My “Higher Power” is the reason I’m sober today! So certainly, the element of prayer can be critical and beneficial!
Parenting certainly is a challenge today, but so is being a kid. Young people are exposed to a multitude of messages that their parents never imagined. And not all of those messages are positive. One of the adages of recovering people is “progress not perfection”. Personally, I use that a lot regarding my own parenting skills. Most nights, when I lay my head on the pillow, I have a sense there were issues regarding the parenting of my own children where I could have done a better job. Don’t be discouraged. The fact that you are even asking about this issue is an indication that you care, and are doing what you can as a parent to protect your offspring.
My mother died many years ago, but one thing I will always remember is that whenever I had an issue in my life that I was struggling with, she would usually respond with: “Don’t worry, just do your best, and God will do the rest”. I still rely on her advice today, and it’s served me well. I hope this discourse is helpful to you. And I compliment you for being proactive in this regard. My response to your query was easy. Your job, front line parenting, is the much greater challenge! I wish you well in this. As you probably know, while the job is a big one, the rewards are also great.