There are as many different reasons
for using drugs and alcohol as burgers served at McDonald’s —
around 99 trillion, at last count, and still climbing.
And while you may insist that
any drug or alcohol use by young people is unacceptable, it’s
important to realize that some factors signal trouble much more
clearly than others. And different levels of involvement can
mean different things — and lead to very different courses of
That’s why, in developing a “drug-proofing”
plan for your family, it’s helpful to consider how problems get
started, what keeps them going, and why.
We’ll begin by pointing out that
people of all ages use psychoactive chemicals (and here we include
coffee and alcohol and tobacco, alongside pot, heroin, crystal
meth, and the rest) for the same reasons that anybody does anything:
To meet internal and external needs with the most available (and
apparently-effective) means at their disposal.
Drugs and alcohol can seem the
most available and effective means for young people to meet a
variety of needs, including the following:
- to satisfy their curiosity
- to feel included in their social
- to feel older, more grown up
- to fill (or kill) time
- for fun or adventure
- to cope with feelings of anger,
fear, loneliness, or sexuality
None of these reasons in itself
is a sign of serious trouble. They’re needs that all normal kids
(and adults) experience from time to time.
One important difference is that
young people may feel these needs more urgently, and have fewer
resources to deal with them.
Our goal as parents should be
to help our kids meet their normal needs in ways that are more
acceptable (and less potentially harmful) than drug abuse. That’s
what we call “drug-proofing,” and we’ll talk more about
it in the next chapter.
On the other hand, there are
reasons for use that should really jump out as danger signals.
And each needs to be considered carefully.
- Self-medication. Often, kids start taking drugs as a
way of medicating themselves against chronic, undiagnosed anxiety
or depression. The emotional turmoil of growing up is only compounded
as kids begin to realize their own limitations and vulnerabilities,
and bump up against standards they can’t meet or problems they
can’t easily resolve. Part of the problem is hard to defend against,
since kids are bombarded with fantasy-based images of beauty
and success and happiness in the media every day. Still, it’s
important to do what we can to help them deal with emotions constructively.
But don’t expect the media to do it for you: It does a better
job of selling dreams than preparing kids to take their place
in the real world. That’s our job.
- Family problems. When kids are unhappy because of tension
inside the family, they look for solace outside the family, and
drugs and alcohol rush in to fill that void. Often, drug use
really is a cry for help — not only for the user, but for a
- No control. Sometimes, kids learn (whether we mean
to teach it or not) that they’re not really expected to succeed
in life, that they’re incapable of making great things happen,
or they’re defective in an important way. This is a crippling
view of life, whether drugs and alcohol come into play to insulate
against it or not.
- Imitation. Then there are kids who do such a good
job of internalizing mom or dad’s values that they adopt their
chemical use patterns, too. The psychological label for this
process is modelling. And whether we like it (or are even aware
of it) or not, we’re role models for our children. So if you
have a problem with drugs or alcohol, your kids could have one,
too — if they don’t have one already.