Parents often ask us what they can do to prevent their children or teens from becoming alcoholics, drug addicts, criminals, and the likes. I’ve been all of these and more, and so I’d like to share my insight with you now that I’ve made it over to the other side:
You can’t prevent anything – but you can educate, inform, prepare, and support.
My family breaths success; it also breeds its. My father was a star athlete who turned into a star doctor and a star family man. He also never drank alcohol and couldn’t care less about drugs. My mother was a beauty queen who always helped me get the best grades in school, even if it meant that she ended up doing my art projects for me and keeping me up all night so I’d finish my work. I’m not sure if it was my perception or my parents’ actual wish, but I always felt like unless I saved the world, I would end up a nobody. Drinking enough alcohol to black-out and consuming every drug on earth was never supposed to be on my menu.
A recent article I read in a monthly psychology magazine (see my post on it here) talked about this sense of perfectionism in our culture and its effect on teen depression, anxiety, and alcohol and drug abuse. Did you know that these are highest among more affluent teens?
Advice #1 – Shooting for good performance is important, but focusing on it as a sole measure of success can lead to trouble.
I got gifts for grades, and the best gifts came only with the best grades. Anything short of perfect was pretty much frowned upon and considered “less than my best.” It became impossible for me to actually enjoy anything but the school subjects I excelled in (math, physics, chemistry). It wasn’t until I graduated from college and did some of my own exploration that I learned to appreciate art, English, and history as worthwhile pursuits. It’s a well-know fact in developmental psychology that you don’t reward behaviors that are supposed to be appreciated in their own right. If you do reward them do so with small gifts, nothing large. Big gifts take away the perception that the activity itself brought about enjoyment.
Advice #2 – Parenting requires consistency and openness, but leave the preaching for church.
This constant need for perfectionism also lead to the repression of many issues in my family.
My parents fought often when I was a kid, screaming loud enough for me to take my sister away often and go play. We never talked about the fights so I never managed to learn about conflict, relationships, or resolution. We never talked about my stealing either, whether I was stealing from my family (mainly my father’s porn) or from the neighborhood toy store. The one time I got caught, my father sternly told me to return my new toy and to never be caught stealing again. I began stealing away from my neighborhood; it would be years before he’d hear about me stealing again. It probably would have been better to sit down and talk about what just happened.
Later on, when my mother would find my weed in my room, she would hide it so that my dad won’t find it because he would get mad. We call that enabling. When I was caught stealing at my work, my father didn’t want to tell my mom, so as not to upset her, so he never brought it up again. We call that denial. Neither of these work since they don’t teach a child anything except how to hide things properly and that even responsible adults lie.
But research shows us that preaching is not a good parenting technique so stay open and talk about struggles without being hypocritical and trying to teach lessons that are obviously forced. Kids and teens pick up on that very quickly but they’re ready to learn from their parents.
Advice #3 – Don’t let your sense of pride, or your ego, prevent you from dealing with real issues with your children. Parenting requires you to be the adult in the relationship with your children even when things don’t go your way.
By the time my parents were forced to confront reality, things in my life had spiraled way out of control. They received a call from my LA lawyer telling them that their son had been arrested for some pretty serious drug dealing. My bail was set at $750,000 and I was facing 18 years in prison. That’s pretty difficult to ignore.
Ironically, my arrest, court case, and the year I spent in jail brought my family closer together than we had even been during my teen years or my later drug addiction phase. Having to actually confront many of our issues allowed us to bring some actual intimacy into the family I had run away from so many years before. The important thing was that my parents didn’t pull out the “we told you so” card but rather helped me confront my demons and treat them. It was the best parenting I’d received in my life and it worked.
My parents did the best they could. I know that. Still, I can’t help to wonder if worrying a little less about how things “should be” and a bit more about the reality of parenting their deviant son may have prevented the latter part of this story. Then again, there’s no guarantee of that either. That’s the most important parenting advice I can give when it comes to teens and drugs…