Addiction and drug facts every parent should know.
As a mother of two pre-teens, drugs are on my mind. I figure that, at some point in the next few years, it is highly likely my kids will be exposed to them.
Do I think my kids will take drugs? To be honest, I really don’t know. I hope not. But I certainly don’t believe any of the well-worn stereotypes. Like the ones that say: only kids from dysfunctional families take drugs, or only kids from single-parent families take drugs. Or only kids from families where both parents work and a never home take drugs, or only kids from poor socio-economic backgrounds take drugs … blah blah blah.
I actually know kids from the most loving families who’ve been well cared for, listened to, raised with respect and given every opportunity, who’ve fallen victim to the lure of drugs and alcohol.
Don’t ever assume, in any circumstances, that it’s not going to happen to my kids.
Addiction and drug facts every parent should know
Many children, by the time they’ve reached their teens, are already primed for addictive behaviour. Most of us who’ve raised children in the era of the social media and online gaming have fought hard to find a balance between letting our kids explore technology, while being acutely aware of what constitutes ‘age-inappropriate’ or ‘too much’ or screen time.
We do our best in what has been largely unchartered parenting territory.
Many of us have also read hours’ worth of research that shows how dangerous both these activities can be for the brain (especially the still-in-development brain). We understand that they stimulate the mind’s ‘reward centre’, which in very simplistic terms means we get a dopamine hit (dopamine is the feel-good hormone) from lots of ‘likes’ or from winning.
In fact, just recently, Instagram made post tallies private to make it less ‘competitive.’ It has long had a reputation as the worst platform for teen’s mental health. Other studies have also singled out games like the incredibly popular Fortnite, with research showing its format, with inbuilt incentives for kids to play longer, can be as addictive as hard drugs.
Add to that, the fact that this current generation of kids has grown up with ‘instant gratification’. Another thing many of us parents have rallied against.
When I was growing up, VCRs (remember those?) were not a ‘thing’ until I was in my teens. And even then, only the wealthiest of households could afford one. So, when the rest of us missed an episode of Magnum PI, Mash, or The Young Ones, we missed it. Such was life.
These days there is no waiting, streaming means you can watch anything, at any time.
Similarly, the rise of credit and shopping conveniences like Afterpay, that enable us to ‘buy now, take home NOW and enjoy NOW’ have contributed to the fact that we are all (in particular our kids) generally less patient. More worryingly, though, is the fact that this means our children are often denied the ‘thrill’ of waiting. Do you remember the sheer pleasure of getting something off layby that you worked really, really hard for? Or buying something you saved weeks of pocket money for? Do you remember waiting months until your birthday to get a new bike and then the sheer deliciousness of that first ride around the neighbourhood after you’d anticipated it for so long?
I also remember so fiercely coveting my best friend’s Mickey Mouse watch. It was a souvenir once only available at Disneyland, USA. Now, you can buy them in a range of colours for less than $10 in any good junk store.
Globalisation has meant we have access to pretty much anything. Technology means we can have it pretty much instantly.
It’s just a hunch (because I see it in my own kids) but I believe this is why today’s generation are constantly on the hunt for the next ‘rush’. The next ‘hit of pleasure’. Because their victories are hollow. My kids have heaps of ribbons and certificates for simply ‘participating’, ‘sitting quietly’ or being ‘a good listener’. (Insert eye roll here.)
Plus, because it is so much easier and cheaper to acquire stuff now, the actual getting of the stuff feels a bit shallow too.
Science now says that genetic make-up can be a factor too. A person’s DNA can mean they have a predisposition to addictive behaviour. And, I’m also mindful that vast exposure to media of all kinds is sort of ‘speeding up’ childhood. To be honest, issues I personally thought we’d be dealing with years from now are already being talked about over our dinner table.
AND THIS IS WHY WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT DRUGS
Whether it’s an underlying sensitivity, low self-esteem, stress, anxiety, curiosity, intelligence, depression or peer pressure that drives them, it’s entirely possible that at some point, your kids will try drugs. Whether or not they develop a bad habit is not something that’s easy to predict either.
A lot of parents suggest the way to keep kids away from drugs is to keep them busy with lots of sport and a wide range of interests and social groups, others suggest keeping them broke so they can’t afford to buy drugs. Others suggest keeping an open dialogue on all subjects, getting to know their friends, being vigilant about where they are and what they’re doing.
It’s all sensible advice. But none of it is completely fail-proof.
THE CONVERSATION PARENTS NEED TO HAVE
Most kids get a drug education at school. But that’s not necessarily adequate either, because the message tends to be ‘Don’t do drugs they’re bad for you.’ This is, after all, the Government mandated curriculum. And the New South Wales Government has a well-publicised, hard line, ‘zero-tolerance’ position when it comes to drugs, and a rhetoric to match. Let’s not forget also that our kids are individuals with their own experiences and ideas, and this kind of ‘one-size fits all’ messaging doesn’t necessarily resonate with everyone. But it can be a good conversation starter.
Perhaps it’s time we changed the narrative and talked to young people about what could happen if they do decide to take drugs.
In recent weeks, the harrowing drug-related deaths of six young people: Diana Nguyen, Joshua Pham, Joshua Tam, Callum Brosnan, Nathan Tran and Alex Ross-King have been the subject of a New South Wales coronial inquiry.
All six died at music festivals, and a range of factors were involved: ‘loading up’ beforehand to avoid police detection , which led to overdosing; heat-stroke resulting in dehydration; drugs combined with excessive alcohol consumption; poor critical and emergency care facilities on site; bad drugs. For these six young people what started out as the promise of a great day out with friends, ended in death. And by all accounts those deaths were prolonged and agonising.
Because illegal drugs are not regulated, they can be made out of anything. Literally anything. And that’s why pill testing is a good idea. It gives young people the chance to see the ingredients in drugs. A ‘bad batch’ can be deadly. One mistake can kill.
Pill testing also gives drug experts a chance to talk to young people, and potentially, talk them out of drug use. In my view, pill testing also offers a ‘respectable out’ for those young people not brave enough to say ‘no’ to provocation from peers.
But our Government has so far steadfastly refused to consider this harm-minimisation measure, which means that young lives are at risk every time they indulge in an illegal drug.
Added to that, New South Wales laws have serious consequences for drug users. My view is perhaps controversial, but I believe the drug dealers are the ones who need severely punishing, not the drug users. Overseas, there are several examples of how treating drug use (whether recreational or serious addiction) as a health issue have been highly effective. Users get treatment, rather than a lifetime sentence. And, in Australia, a drug conviction could well turn out to have life-long consequences.
Addiction and drug facts every parent should know (cont.)
DRUG USE CAN RUIN LIVES
Under current NSW laws, anyone caught in possession of drugs faces the very real prospect of criminal conviction. The stigma of having a criminal record can mean being socially marginalised. The opportunity to travel can be severely limited. It can also mean missing out on a job or a career promotion.
There is no straightforward solution. But I’ve worked in the criminal law space long enough to know that drugs are more prolific than most people consider them to be. They’re well hidden from general public view, but they do exist. And ignoring the fact that your teenager won’t at some point come into contact with them is to bury your head in the sand.
While it’s rare that people die from an overdose of alcohol, it needs to be part of the conversation too. We need to talk about the P-platers who had too much to drink and killed a young mother and her children on the road. Or the drunk driver whose decision to be behind the wheel ended in an accident that turned his friend into a paraplegic.
We need to talk about the other tragic stories too – the young woman who was raped in the carpark of the nightclub, after drinking too much, but who feels a shame so strong that she can’t bring herself to acknowledge it or tell anyone. The young man who got bashed and mugged on his walk home from the pub, because he was drunk and defenceless. The guy who threw a king hit because he was fuelled up and in the mood for an argument. And the youngsters who got beaten by Police while resisting arrest because they were under the influence and unruly.
The truth is that young people are vulnerable. Mostly because they think they are invincible. But also, because their brains are still growing right through adolescence. Science has a few theories on this, and in the most basic terms these suggest that teens are not yet capable of rational decision making in the same way adults are. Also, that while their brain is undergoing significant change, they can tend to rely on the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with impulse and instinct. Some studies suggest that risky behaviour and novelty seeking are both natural behavioural mechanisms, which assist in optimising brain development at this point in teen’s lives.
As much as we need to protect them, we need to prepare them. We need to alert our teens to the dangers of drugs, inform them, keep the lines of communication open, help them to assess the risks, and give them a chance to build their own safety nets, so they can prepare for any eventuality.
And while abstinence is without question, the most preferable stance, we need to expect that not all of them will choose it.