I’m not qualified to write this article. I’m not a recovering addict or an addiction specialist. I’ve witnessed the demons of addiction but I’ve never experienced them myself. I’ve never smoked a single cigarette or felt the high of an illegal drug in my body.
What I am is an anti-addiction success story. Not because I am a good suburban white girl who “just said no,” but because drugs and alcohol were the catalysts that led to my most painful childhood and adult memories. The single greatest deterrent to the road to addiction is hearing, seeing, or experiencing the negative effects of drugs and alcohol.
I was a zealous little crusader in elementary school. I grew up during the war on drugs and had a “just say no” pin on my jean jacket. My teachers likely thought my intensity was fueled by my perfectionism and desire for praise. They didn’t know that by fifth grade I already had flashbacks and mental battle wounds. I only needed to recall the time I thought my dad was going to kill my mom to be disgusted by the way people smell, talk, and act when they are intoxicated.
I found out later, during my dad’s testimony at church, that when I was young he sold cocaine, among other drugs, out of our tiny house. As early as four years old, I remember not wanting my dad’s friends to come over and fill our house with smoke. To me, they were yucky. I didn’t like it when they talked to me or tried to play with me. Even then, I knew something about them was not right.
Although over 32 years have passed, I have three flashbacks from early childhood that still visit me regularly. I know now that the adrenaline and cortisol that floods the body when the flight-or-fight response is triggered is linked to memory. It’s sad, but it explains why my earliest memories are all traumatic events.
I was six when my mom and dad separated. My mom moved us into a duplex while my dad stayed in the house. The first picture in my mind from that evening is of my mom running from the kitchen to her bedroom and slamming the door shut. Dad was yelling; she was crying. I don’t know if my dad had just arrived or if he had been visiting. I wasn’t afraid of my dad. He had never hurt us or mom. Their fights were loud and ugly, sometimes even public, but not violent.
My dad’s friend Kevin came in the back door. I hated Kevin. He had a sour smell that made my stomach turn, and his long dark hair was stringy and greasy. He usually tried to make me and my sister laugh, but my instinct was to stay as far away from him as possible.
My dad grabbed a knife from a kitchen drawer and rushed the bedroom. I screamed. Kevin picked up both my 4-year-old sister and me and took us out to the driveway. He set us down, crouched down, and tried to console us. His dirty sports car idled in the driveway with the interior light on and one door open. I sobbed and heaved into Kevin’s shoulder. This time, it wasn’t his disgusting smell that made me choke back vomit; I believed my dad was inside killing my mom.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the connection between drugs and alcohol to the fight that made me swear off those substances for life. It was Kevin. I associated drugs and alcohol with Kevin. Hugging him was traumatic. I was keenly aware that, at that moment, he was the only person watching out for us, and I was repulsed by him at a primal level. I never wanted to smell like him, look like him, talk like him, or be near someone like him again. If he represented drugs and alcohol, I wanted nothing to do with it. Ever.
I don’t have any other visual memories of that night. It ends with my face pressed against Kevin’s wet jacket. Later, my parents explained that my dad used the knife to unlock the bedroom door. Since the incident didn’t last long, I imagine that was the truth. A short time later both of my parents got sober and we joined a church. The rest of my childhood was happy and carefree. I even got the baby brother I wanted.
I’m not qualified to tell you how to deter your kids from drugs and alcohol. I’m a just a woman who experienced the effects of addiction firsthand and a mom who has done her research. I would lie down in front of a train if it meant keeping my kids from the monster of addiction. Here is our plan for our children:
1. Start Young
We started talking about drugs and alcohol when our kids were in preschool. Our oldest asks 1,000 questions an hour, so it wasn’t a surprise that he wondered about cigarettes when he saw someone smoking. That was our cue to begin the life-long conversation about substance abuse and addiction. At this age, kids can learn that there are good things and bad things people put into their bodies. We talked about how different foods, poisons, and prescription medicines can help or hurt us.
Kids mature at different rates and you know your child best. If you follow your gut, let your kids know that they can ask you anything, and keep your answers short and simple, you’ll do great. This age-by-age guide may help you navigate the discussion from preschool to adolescence.
2. Show & Tell
We don’t make conversations about substance abuse a big deal. It is an ongoing conversation that could come up at any time. For instance, if someone was drunk in front of my children, I would use that as an opportunity to explain to them why the person was acting strangely.
We don’t hide alcohol from our kids. We want them to know that drinking in moderation is okay for responsible adults. We are casual drinkers and we often have beer and wine in the fridge. We are open and honest about why we drink, when it is appropriate to drink, and how drinking makes us feel. We also point out that mom and dad never drive after they have been drinking.
When we talk to our kids about smoking, we talk about the effects cigarettes have on the bodies of those who smoke, without shaming them. We have family members who smoke and we want our kids to continue to respect those people despite their addiction. We talk about the power of addictive drugs and how many people who put drugs into their bodies would like to stop, but can’t.
3. Give Them an Out
Experts have learned since the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) years that, “just say no” doesn’t work. Peer acceptance is perhaps the most important thing to pre-teens and teens. If we are going to ask our children to swim upstream when many of their friends are floating downstream, we’d better have a good plan. Confidence and resolve doesn’t magically appear in a fickle pre-teen when the stakes are high.
When under pressure, a child is more likely to take the easiest route and do whatever everyone else is doing. Knowing exactly what to say when addictive substances appear, illegal or not, must be so ingrained in them that the response is automatic.
It’s not about just saying no. It’s finding a way for the child to communicate that they aren’t interested while saving face in front of their friends. We can’t teach our kids why they should say no without teaching them how. This blog post by Glennon Doyle Melton, a recovering addict and mom, is an excellent resource for helping pre-teens and teens plan the exact words they would be comfortable saying when offered a drink or drugs (spoiler: it’s not “no”).
4. Keep Talking
My children don’t have negative experiences to associate with addiction. Instead, they have knowledge and stories. They know that addiction can be why people lose their jobs or go to prison. We also talk about how some kids are in foster care because their parents are addicted to drugs and alcohol and can’t care for them right now.
Our kids are still young, so what they know is limited, but I intend to share more powerful stories, pictures, and even testimonies of addicts with them as they get older. We will watch the TV show Intervention together and discuss what they saw and how it made them feel.
However, more important than any discussions I have with my kids is that they feel validated and supported by their family. Studies show that children who experience unconditional love are more likely to be healthier, more bonded to their family, and have higher self-esteem. All of these are protective factors in the fight against addiction.