Pills And Pot On The Playground Seeking Solutions For Teen And Tween Drug Abuse

By Maribel Quiala, LCSW

The problem of drug and alcohol abuse has been around for a very long time. It evolved from the shadows of the underworld, thrived during Prohibition, escalated in the 60’s and 70’s and now runs rampant in our homes and on our local school yards. Who would have imagined that the so-called “counterculture” of drug use would develop into the serious problem of addiction we have today?

We are sending mixed messages to our kids. We tell them not to do drugs, yet when there is a problem we run to the doctor a get some pills. Granny’s bedside is adorned with bottles filled with pills of all colors, shapes and sizes; just like a candy store. Daddy needs to take something for back pain and Mom is being treated for depression. The so-called counterculture has gone main stream. We have become a pharmacological fantasyland.

There’s a pill or potion to “fix” anything and everything. Advertising for new prescription medications are all over the media – television, radio and print. Drug marketing is big business and our medical culture has embraced it wholeheartedly. While these ads may be helpful to older adults who need medications to address many of the medical ailments that come with aging, and a boon for big pharmaceutical companies, it is yet another mixed message we send to our kids about drugs. Did we really think that somehow this mindset wouldn’t trickle down to them or affect them? Did we think they would be immune from it all?

As some parents lock their liquor cabinets in an attempt to keep their kids from drinking alcohol, the medicine cabinet is wide open to enquiring minds. Kids don’t think about consequences unless they’ve been communicated with and taught to consider them from the get go. Even then there is no guarantee that their feelings, self esteem, pressure from their peers or a desire to fit in will prevent them from flirting with disaster.

Kids are going to make mistakes and have lapses in judgment. Many will experiment with drugs and not suffer consequences. Others will not be so lucky.

Although street drugs, still a problem in and of themselves, are business as usual in many of our communities, even more alarming is the rise of potentially lethal “legal” drugs that are manufactured, easy to obtain and available to kids in convenience stores. Bath salts, salvia, spice, alcohol, and those heavily marketed energy drinks (loaded with caffeine) are all legal; to a kid it means they’re safe. They’re not. Overindulging on energy drinks alone can cause serious heart palpitations; mixed with other drugs, it’s a surefire recipe for disaster.

The concept of the “pharma party” is quite disturbing. The kids gather pills of all kinds from wherever they can find them. Then they are put in a bowl for anyone to sample at will. There is no thought of negative drug interaction; most times they don’t even know what they’re taking; they just eat them like candy and wait to see what happens! Don’t kid yourself that this could never happen in your neighborhood.

More disturbing is the fact that the demographic for abuse keeps getting younger. Instances of pot and pills filtering into elementary schools are documented. Older siblings or cousins are many times the gate master for your child’s entry into drugs. Sometimes it’s their parents, who live a drug culture lifestyle.

It’s important to note here that the family dynamic plays a huge role in a child’s self esteem and probability for risky behavior, including drug abuse. Kids want to fit in, be talked to, communicated with, and approved of even if they act like they don’t. Keeping lines of communication open with your tweens and teens is as vital to a healthy family dynamic as the parents communicating with each other. You can’t be afraid to talk about subjects like sex, drugs, alcohol, violence, cheating, etc.; these topics need to be addressed head on.

Without extolling or condemning the topic of medical marijuana, it’s important to understand that pot has changed. Gone are the days of the happy homegrown user. Most varieties of marijuana are hybrids now. They’re more potent and more likely to impair the user. This is an excellent article from the Mayo Clinic about the kinds of drugs that kids are using: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/teen-drug-abuse/MY01099.

Don’t wait for your child to ask; make a plan to have “the talk”. Figure out what you want to say and talk to your kids as you wish you had been talked to. What would you do differently? What information do you wish you had known but didn’t. That’s a good place to start.

As a parent you may not have had the benefit of parental guidance and if that is the case, you are not alone. The axiom “when people know better, they do better” is true. Leaving your kids to figure it out all on their own is asking for trouble. If they have questions, they will ask who they trust. Hopefully that would be you. If you feel inadequate or lost, you can try talking to a school counselor or social worker to give you some tips. You may also be able to find excellent information online.

When a kid makes a mistake or a bad choice, and they will, the worst thing you can do is to shame them or withhold your love from them – That’s when they need it the most. If it doesn’t come from you, they will find it elsewhere and that’s exactly what predators and gangs, and drugs, count on.

From a kid’s point of view, it’s better to be a part of something than to constantly feel like you don’t belong anywhere. Drugs and alcohol, even cigarettes, are sometimes all it takes to make kids feel like they fit in their own skin. Birds of a feather do stick together; the outsiders will find each other because they understand each other.

Have you ever wondered why so many kids are attracted to gangs? Oddly enough, the gang dynamic is almost identical to the family dynamic, but with very different goals and outcomes. Gangs represent acceptance, being a part of something and gangs have notorious ties to drugs and drug activity. They go hand in hand.

The gang leader represents the “Father” figure. He’s the guy you have to please. There is usually at least one female that is kind and nurturing; she represents the “Mother”. Other members represent siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. Gang leaders know how to draw kids in and, like predators (and drugs), they are patient.

My colleagues tell me that there are many young people’s 12 Step groups where kids can find the acceptance and fellowship they desire. The beauty of 12 Step recovery is that there is real power in one alcoholic/ addict talking to another. Alcoholic and addicts have a common bond aside from addiction and that is their feelings.

In some cases detoxification needs to be medically supervised in a clinical setting before real treatment can begin. Alcohol takes around 30 days to leave your system, although cravings can last long after that and it can be detected in hair for up to four years. Drugs take longer, around 45 days to initially leave the body. Depending on what substance or combination of substances your child used, a 28 day program may not be sufficient.

Fortunately, there are out-patient programs and residential programs ranging from county beds to country club settings. Recovery is not dependent on the environment of the program, but on the willingness of the alcoholic/addict to embrace life without drugs or alcohol. Having medical insurance or the ability to pay, or not, may decide what kind of treatment your child is eligible for. Be aware that there are no guarantees that treatment and recovery will “take” the first, fifth or even the tenth time. It takes what it takes and for some it takes a lot.

Unfortunately, your child may not be the only one who needs recovery. Addiction is a family disease and the most successful treatment for your child may involve you and/or other family members looking at their behavior as well.

The Al-Anon program is for friends and family members of alcoholics. If your child has a problem staying sober, you should seek some kind of support group, 12 Step or otherwise. You will benefit from talking to other parents who are dealing with the problem of teen and tween addiction too.

Find out what your kid’s school is doing to support kids who are trying to stay clean. You might also ask what the school is doing to keep pot and pills off the playground! By working together, more can be done to keep kids off drugs, in school and out of trouble.

Maribel Quiala, LCSW is the Director of Clinical Services at Fort Lauderdale Hospital.