The Best Preventative Measure You Can Take To Keep Your Kids Off Drugs and Alcohol


The Education Crisis

One of the things I get asked by parents a lot is ‘how can I keep my kids off drugs?’ ‘How can I prevent them from abusing alcohol?’ They ask me about how they can warn their kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. I want to tell them they are asking the wrong question.

Kids certainly need that information; they need to be informed and be armed with the facts. But in my experience, it’s not how you keep kids from abusing substances. It’s literally about 4% of substance abuse prevention. The best preventative measures you can take are by teaching them resilience and role-modeling how to deal with difficult feelings.

And guess what? Now would be a perfect opportunity to do that.

Addiction doesn’t just appear overnight. It is nurtured over the years, and the roots of addiction are often in childhood. One of the ways to protect children from addiction is to build resilience. As a parent, I also know that is easier said than done. If we want to build our children’s resilience, we also have to let them struggle. We have to resist the urge to save them because it is the struggle and the subsequent suffering that gives them the tools to succeed in life. The struggle is the only way kids can build resilience and mental fortitude to deal with challenges, problems, setbacks, and pain. It’s my belief that it’s never too early for a kid to learn this. Our lives offer ample opportunity to build resilience and never more than this moment.

When parents watch their children struggle or suffer, it often triggers their own unresolved childhood issues. We are remembering our own struggles and how we felt, and we naturally want to save our children from the same suffering. Sometimes it’s appropriate to do this and sometimes it isn’t. Discerning when is one of the challenges of parenting.

Tsabary says, “Parenting is not about the raising of the child, it is about the raising of the parent.”

Our children will trigger us as no one else can — we are triggered because we relate to them from our own experiences as children. That is why our feelings are so intense. We are reliving feelings from the past, from our own childhoods, and we passionately want to protect our kids from the suffering we went through. This can only be a good thing, right? Actually, the answer is maybe. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we are helping our child because they need our help or because we want can’t stand how uncomfortable it makes us feel. Are we stealing a growth opportunity from them or is this the moment they need us to step in and advocate for them? The answer will be different every time.

Parenting Resilient Children

I have been thinking about resilience, parenting, and childhood during this situation that we find ourselves in. Our normal lives changed in a matter of days when the schools closed earlier this year. It became a crisis on top of a crisis. Many parents lost jobs, had to work from home, and manage child care and education. We also faced isolation, financial pressures, and loneliness. It was extremely difficult. The first thing to note about being in a crisis is it affects the way our brains operate. Our brains simply cannot operate at the level that they are usually capable of when we are in a crisis. What was possible for you in January 2020 on a normal week would not have been possible for you in the first week of April 2020, because your brain was in crisis mode. We cannot process information or make decisions when our brains are under-functioning. We were all flailing around doing the best we could and not really understanding why we were not as effective in our daily lives as we normally were. Your emotional response to the pandemic may have shown up for you in how you parented, how you replied to emails, how you worked, how you communicated. It may have shown up in your sleep, eating, drinking, and more. Every time I felt a rush of fear and uncertainty, I would whip out my phone and panic-buy random things I thought we would need during lockdown. Taking some kind of action made me feel better.

Eventually, we adjusted to our new normal. This psychological adjustment to our new normal meant our brains could respond, adapt, and operate better under these new parameters. Human beings are incredibly adaptable, and we did eventually adjust. Now we are adjusting again, and I’m calling this “the second dip.” The second dip is the emotional storm we are entering as we prepare for students to go back to school. We are getting ready for another stage of the unknown that is also unprecedented. We are in a period of sustained uncertainty with no endpoint in sight. And that’s very stressful. Again, stress affects the brain. When we are highly stressed over a sustained period of time, our brain functioning is not at the level of what we are capable of, and this affects our ability to make decisions. Everyday life will feel harder.

Educating in a Pandemic

It is clear our children are going to have a very different experience of formal education this year. All we can do as parents is to choose our response to this.

My hope for this school year is that my children will get some education and socialization. I have lowered my expectations considerably as to what their school experience will be like. Lowering my expectations has helped me manage my stress levels. Despite the uncertainty around the school, it doesn’t mean my kids won’t be learning. Even though their school experience may be different, they will still be learning, and resilience will be one of the things I hope they learn.

I want my kids to know that the world can change and challenges can occur, and we may not like what is happening, but we can choose our response. I want to take this opportunity to equip them to deal with challenges. They can learn essential coping skills to deal with fear, frustration, and anxiety. They can learn how to deal with boredom and how to manage their time. We have had days during lockdown when my kids have been stuck in front of a screen for hours, either the iPad or the TV because I’ve just had to work and I needed them to be occupied. I haven’t once felt bad or guilty about this. I accept that this is the best we can do in this difficult situation. It is not how I typically parent, but I also refuse to get stressed about it. I know my kids will still graduate from high school and go on to college. We adapted and we got through the days as best we could.

The best thing we can do for our kids is to work on managing our own emotional reactions to the pandemic, including when our children trigger us. Observe the need to rescue them from the struggle and practice discerning whether this is the time you need to speak up or let them have the gift of discomfort. Growth is uncomfortable — there’s no way around it. The life lessons are in the discomfort, and this is why it is such a necessary gift for our children. Ask yourself: Whose struggle is this? Am I rescuing my child or myself?

If we approach this current crisis with an attitude of giving our kids the opportunity to learn essential life skills like resilience rather than trying to save them from the hardships, it will equip them to flourish when it’s all over. It will also equip them with an essential tool that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Our job is not to rescue our children from difficult and uncomfortable feelings. Our job as parents is to emotionally coach them through what is happening. And it’s okay to say: I don’t know, I don’t have answers. This is really hard. I’m struggling too. I have no idea what’s going to happen, but we will figure it out together. It’s okay to say all of those things. It’s okay to stick them in front of iPads for hours because you have to work. It won’t always be like this.

My biggest tool for getting through the second dip is lowering my expectations, aiming for “good enough” and refusing to be stressed about online education. We will do the best we can and I accept that my “best” is contingent on so many external forces beyond my control.

It’s also okay to tell them that you’re frightened and then talk about how you are dealing with that fear. What our kids really need from us is reassurance that all of these feelings are normal and natural responses. They need to hear that it’s okay to have them and they have permission to have them. We build resilience by being honest about how we feel, no matter how difficult and uncomfortable that is for us. We teach resilience by modeling small coping strategies. Sometimes that might be just going for a walk, talking about how we feel, watching a movie on Netflix, or having a cuddle. We can reassure our kids that even though we feel this way, the feeling will pass. We will feel okay. We will get through this together.

I will also add that right now your kids are watching you manage your own emotions to this pandemic. Kids learn how to ‘do’ feelings by looking at what we do. So this may be a time to evaluate your own alcohol consumption as a method to manage your own stress and anxiety. Use whatever support is available to you.

Lastly, I am very aware of how fortunate we are. I am not stressed about my own kids, but I am hugely concerned about other children. I worry about the ones who don’t have access to digital products or Wi-fi, or a parent who can sit and explain things to them. I am concerned for the parents who desperately need their kids to be taken care of so they can work. I am worried that the gap between privileged kids like mine and underprivileged kids is going to widen. I want to advocate for kids with less privilege. My energy and worry are for kids who are not as lucky as mine are.

I know that we are going to have a crisis in mental health and a rise in alcohol abuse as fear, loneliness, financial hardship, and uncertainty take their toll. This is why we need to take this crisis we are in and use it as a tool to teach our kids resilience, resourcefulness, and helpful ways to manage the difficult feelings they are going to experience. It is these tools that will minimize the impact of this crisis on them and equip them to resist needing to take mood and mind-changing substances when they are older.

We are at the start of another readjustment to yet another new reality. We are all going to have days when we struggle.  How we respond to that struggle is up to us.

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