In March an elite prep school had me meet with their uber-successful parents to get them to stop allowing their teens to use “soft drugs” (alcohol and marijuana). These parents were visibly upset when I described how addiction is usually born in adolescent use of exactly those “soft” drugs which rewire kids’ brains towards addiction. “Opiates have been around forever,” I summarized, “so why do we suddenly have an epidemic? Is it simply over-prescribing or is it also related to the preceding decades of rising adolescent use of these ‘soft drugs’?” One hand slowly raised to ask the question on everyone’s mind: “But if I tell my daughter she can’t do weed or alcohol, she’ll have no friends, no social life. Every kid she knows uses weed and alcohol. She’ll hate me. What are parents supposed to do?” As this mom spoke, my brain filled with the devastating image of another mom who recently returned to my office after a five-year hiatus. In our last session back then she said she couldn’t and wouldn’t stop her son from smoking weed. Five years later Mom had just buried him following a heroin overdose. He was 19.
Two things are killing our kids today. The first is stress. Good data paint a bad picture of today’s teens as being the most stressed, depressed and anxious generation we’ve seen in five decades of measurement. Teen suicide, that horrific barometer of suffering, has exponentially increased over fifty years. Adolescents are drowning in a perfect storm of stress factors, two of which are lousy teen brain wiring and a methamphetamine-like culture that promotes excessive achievement demands (think academics and sports) and which uses electronics to pound kids 24/7 (they’re also not sleeping) with drug, sex and impossible cyber social management demands. Those adolescent pressures have always existed, but the screens now deliver them with stunning power. Think muskets versus machine guns. That’s how weed, booze and even death can begin to look good to a 14-year-old. But the second killer is us-their parents.
The mythology of parental impotence in raising teenagers might be the single greatest cause of this suffering. While many parents feel they have no influence in things such as drug use, the research paints a very different picture. We have made impressive strides in pushing back on prior adolescent plagues such as cigarette smoking and unintended pregnancy by utilizing skilled intervention techniques. Rich, poor or anywhere in between, teens do listen to adults even as they roll their eyes and storm off after hearing what they hate and yet so desperately need to hear. The best defense against drug addiction is having parents who lovingly and firmly say things such as, “I’m older and smarter, and I know that these drugs can take your life one day if you use them now as a teenager. It is my expectation that you will not use until you are twenty-one, and I will do whatever it takes to make that happen. I will do that because I love you.” Parents who place few zero-tolerance demands upon their teens have kids who are shocked to see their laid-back parents suddenly get deadly serious. They listen.
The power of this vaccine is not in policing, yelling, or designing consequences (although these things may be needed). The magic is in lovingly and calmly communicating a clear expectation of sobriety to our kids. That iron fist, velvet glove message creates kids who will still experiment but will have exponentially less risk of addiction.
I asked that seminar parent if she thought her house will burn down. She said no. I asked if she carried fire insurance. “Of course!” she exclaimed, “A fire would be a catastrophe.” I complimented her wisdom in insuring for the unlikely 25% possibility of having a house fire. I then used a formula to calculate the odds of her teen becoming an addict to be about 20% if she uses "soft" drugs regularly. “Are you OK,” I asked, “with accepting a similar risk of life-long addiction for your kid by letting her use? There is no insurance against that catastrophe.”