Arm your children through communication
As a therapist with expertise in addiction and recovery, one question I often field from concerned parents is this: “Does addiction in my family mean my kids will develop the same problem?” Many have heard that addiction runs in the family and wonder if their children’s genetic makeup will automatically cause them to struggle and suffer in this area.
This question seems particularly distressing for Solo Moms, perhaps because they are usually juggling so much at one time and worry about a family crisis such as addiction putting themselves or their families over the edge. A few Solo Moms have expressed guilt and worry about the fact that their teenage children have more and longer periods of unsupervised time than their friends’ children do in a two-parent household. Will this increase the risk of their child experimenting with substances? And will that invariably lead to addiction if there’s already been addiction in the family?
While new research is being conducted all the time, especially regarding neuroscience, there are a few things I tell parents about addiction in the family based on my studies and knowledge of research, along with my professional and personal experience.
1. Biology is not destiny. Scientific research has not discovered one identifiable addiction gene, but what research does show is that people who come from families with significant patterns of addiction appear to have a biological predisposition or proneness. When this is combined with numerous other factors (personality, social learning, and degree and nature of situational stressors, to name just a few), addiction seems to be a likelier result for someone with addiction in their family than it does for someone who does not have that family history. But I have worked with a number of people with addiction whose family members did not themselves struggle with addiction. Addiction is multifaceted, and it’s not simply a matter of inheriting or not inheriting a biological proneness.
2. What you say to your kids about it matters. I have worked with adult clients who wish their parent had discussed family addiction history with them, feeling they might have made different decisions of substance use if they were aware of the risks. On the other hand, I have worked with adult clients who feel that the family addiction history was talked about too often or that they were compared with one or more family members who struggled with addiction (“You have such a temper, just like your [alcoholic] father”); as a result, the person developed a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in which addiction seemed predestined and the only available avenue. Often, families become intensely secretive about a family member’s addiction, which can lead the child to believe it is a dangerous subject to talk about, and to therefore be secretive about their own questions, concerns, and substance use.
3. Think about what has and hasn’t been said about a family member’s substance use problems, and about substance use in general. A teenager who hears, “You’re at risk for this; don’t ever do it!” may be even more curious about substances or might feel that she or he can’t talk to their parent about concerns they might have about their or a friend’s potential or actual substance use.
As a parent, you can’t eliminate all risks, but you can create or nurture a home environment where your children can feel free to talk to you about anything. It can also be helpful to bring up the subject of substance use before or without there having been any known instances. For example, you might say that you’re aware that at this age, some kids are drinking and taking drugs and that you have concerns about this. You can elaborate on your concerns and openness to talk this way: “Some of your family members have really struggled with this, and research shows that teenage alcohol and drug use affects the still-developing brain differently than it does an adult brain, sometimes causing permanent damage. I hope you’ll decide not to drink or use drugs, but even more than that, I hope that if something does come up around alcohol or other drugs, with you or with friends, that you’ll talk to me about it.”
4. Address known risks for substance misuse in the household. If your teenager needs to be home alone a lot and has had one known drinking incident, for example, maybe there is an activity he or she can go to for part of the time or a responsible adult nearby who can drop in unexpectedly from time to time. And if you did not finish a bottle of painkillers after recent surgery but have been hearing about teenage painkiller abuse in your area, by all means avoid a situation where your child has easy access to leftover painkillers. (Actually, I recommend that all parents refrain from keeping prescribed painkillers, sedatives, and amphetamines in a place where children and teens can access them easily. These medications are often abused or sold by kids.)
If there is alcohol in your home, monitor how much is used and where it is going. I have heard many stories about kids and teens drinking beers that are rapidly replaced by adults when there is frequent drinking by multiple members in a household. On the other side of the coin, I’ve heard stories about kids watering down the family alcohol supply after helping themselves in households where adults drink infrequently enough that kids can get away with this undetected for a while.
5. Learn as much as you can about substance abuse, regardless of your family history. Teenage substance abuse is a widespread and sometimes fatal problem. It is important to know patterns of substance abuse in your community, signs and patterns of behavior that might indicate your child has or is developing a problem, and what area resources exist to help with concerns you or your children might have. We should view learning this information in the same way that we might view learning first aid and CPR—which is to say, we hope we’ll never need it, but we’re prepared if we ever do.
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Susan Lemere is a Solo Mom of two, as well as a therapist, a writer, and an artist coach.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.