Dr. Michael J. De Vito


When should we begin to educate our children about addictive behaviors?

I have been consulting with clients and patients for over 30 years in the field of health and addiction recovery. I can tell you that whatever issues you can possibly imagine have probably been discussed in sessions. And yet, I know I have not seen or heard all of what goes on in the lives of suffering individuals and families. There is always a new story and an old memory specific to someone’s life that brings home the tragedy of chemical dependency and addictive behavior.

In years past when I would consult with clients about how substance abuse or other self-destructive behaviors began those beginnings were usually predicable. Often it would begin with a few beers with friends on the weekend during the last year or two of high school. Maybe a keg party took place pledge week at college. Some clients would find it common to head to happy hour at the end of the day with fellow co-workers. Frequently men and women while in military service would begin regular alcohol use or experimentation with other drugs. The manifestations of addiction and abuse came a bit later with past generations then we see today. Now, when I assess someone 30 and under the saga expressed is often very different. Experimentation and abuse begins at a much younger age and with greater frequency. It is not unusual to find that many people began the use of alcohol and a variety of other drugs before middle school. That would put the age of first use under the age of 12. In my practice I am seeing more and more clients who began substance abuse between the ages of 6 and 10. Recently, I consulted with a client who related that their first use of alcohol began by age 5 and progressed to the abuse of other drugs by age 8. These incidents are no longer unique. They have become main stream in substance abuse treatment.

It should be no surprise to anyone that children who are exposed to the experimentation of alcohol and other drugs are at a higher risk of becoming addicted and compulsive abusers in adulthood. That drug exposure includes the use of prescriptions such as central nervous system stimulants and psychotropic medications. Medications such as Ritalin, Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft and others seem to be more and more acceptable by physicians and therapists for use among children and adolescents.

The brain of a child and young adult is still developing both anatomically and physiologically. The introduction of alcohol or other drugs either prescribed or abused, will impair development, alter brain chemistry and reduce receptor site availability. This chemical abuse will have a detrimental effect on the physical and mental health of teens and adults in future years. Overall health and well-being will be harmed. There is enough clinical and empirical evidence to bear this out.

In a common sense society no 5, 6 or 7 year old child is on the street corner buying drugs, scoring a bag in the school yard or visiting the local liquor store to pick up a lottery ticket and a 12 pack. That child’s first exposure comes by way of formerly abused older kids or foolish complacent adults. Alcohol use in some cultures is tolerated and available at any age. The use of drugs is glamourized and accepted in varying degrees in entertainment, sports, adult conversations and hero role models. That influence and education takes hold very early in a child’s life. By the time we think we should discuss the harm of drugs and their abuse, in many cases the education has already taken place. At a very early age our children have been desensitized to the value of right and wrong, the value of life, the value of the worth of each individual and the value of their own life and self-esteem. These values are not relative or dependent on the latest whim of individual groups. These values should be the same for all of us.

So what is the answer?
Recently a law was passed in the Congress of the United States requiring auto makers to have all new vehicles equipped with rear view cameras by 2018. It was estimated that 200 lives were lost per year due to accidents as a result of a driver’s poor rear vision. That
is an enormous undertaking of time, effort and expense for 200 lives, granted all precious and valuable.

I am not suggesting one more federal law. We have far too many now. However, tens upon tens of thousands of individuals of all ages die yearly due to alcohol and drug abuse. Shouldn’t the same time, effort and expense be considered regarding these deaths? No government law or program will put a dent in this issue. We don’t need another anti-drug coloring book or NIDA funded study. But we as parents, teachers, clergy, neighbors, caregivers, entertainers, sports heroes, physicians, counselors and anyone else who has some contact or influence with young children can have a major effect on how the young think, live and grow. Children are learning from us. We need to look inward on our own values and views. What is the quality of our character and our philosophy of life? Why is it the way it is? How do we conduct ourselves? Children learn from our first nurturing gesture and it continues through their life’s observations. What they hear us say in conversation influences them. What they watch educates them. How we react to right and wrong enlightens them. What they see our state lawmakers and politicians approve of regarding drug acceptance desensitizes them. Who their heroes are and what they say and do affects their developing philosophy of life. How old is too young to begin the education of children regarding values, self-esteem, drug abuse and negative behaviors?

It is never too young. The learning has already begun. We just need to catch up.

Dr. Michael J. De Vito is a diplomate and is board certified in Addictionology. He is a graduate of Mansfield University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern Health Science University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has been an instructor of Medical Ethics, Clinical Pathology, Anatomy and Physiology at the College of Southern Nevada.

He is the founder and program director of NewStart Treatment Center located in Henderson, Nevada. NewStart Treatment Center utilizes a drug free and natural approach to addiction treatment.