Protecting Our Children from Addiction – Part 2

by Larry Moliterno

We know that we’re struggling with addiction in our community at epidemic levels. But is it possible to prevent addiction before it happens? Last month, I discussed all the safety precautions we routinely put in place to keep our children safe; yet we seem to lack in funding and resources when it comes to preventing our kids from addiction.

In order to fully understand how, as a community, we can protect our kids — we need to understand why kids use in the first place. Part of it is physiological. The prefrontal cortex of the brain isn’t fully developed until around age 21. This is the part of the brain that allows humans to understand consequences and make rational decisions. That’s why kids are more likely to be impulsive and take risks.

Consider this too: when something hurts, what do we do? We take a pill, and the pain goes away. Why would kids think it’s any different to stop emotional hurt? Take a pill, and it will go away.

According to SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), there are many risk factors that influence a person’s chance of developing a mental health or substance use disorder. Effective prevention focuses on reducing those risk factors, and strengthening the protective factors that are most closely related to the problem being addressed.

Risk factors are characteristics at the biological, psychological, family, community or cultural level that precede and are associated with a higher likelihood of negative outcomes. There are risk periods that increase the likelihood of substance abuse as well as other risky behaviors.

For example, changes in physical development, social change, relationships, family dynamics, change in responsibility, and academic pressure can all be considered either a risk period or a risk factor. These risk periods/factors have a lot of sources, including personal, family and friends, school and the community.

When one of these risk factors arises, instead of assuming our kids are fine or punishing them for acting out, we need to take it as an opportunity to understand why he or she is acting this way.  Maybe he’s upset because something is going on at home…maybe he’s hurting because he was rejected by the girl he has a crush on…maybe she’s embarrassed by the acne on her face. If we don’t find the root cause of the behavior, we could be making the problem worse.

Along with the risk factors, we also recognize that there are protective factors in kids’ lives that reduce the likelihood of substance use and risky behavior. Protective factors are characteristics associated with a lower likelihood of negative outcomes; they can also reduce a risk factor’s impact.

Some examples of protective factors are developing social skills and coping abilities, finding a strong adult role model who demonstrates what a healthy relationship should look like, and getting involved in extracurricular activities to create a sense of belonging and worth. Another is a child being recognized and rewarded for his or her contributions, which helps build self-esteem.

Providing these protective factors is not just the responsibility of schools, but of the entire community. Simply put, we need to identify kids in risk periods, engage them, and provide more opportunities to take advantage of protective factors.

So how do we do this? Next month I’ll explain how our community — including schools, parents, legislators, religious leaders, medical professionals, business leaders, law enforcement, treatment providers, and even kids — can come together to help protect our kids from addiction.