The trends are not looking good for the mental and emotional health of young people, across all demographics. For instance, most people think of college as one of the happier times in a person’s whole life. However, according to a recent survey by the American College Health Association, 52 percent of college students reported feeling hopeless, while 39 percent suffered from severe depression during the previous year. Those are some staggering numbers. Apparently, the freedom and excitement of college life offers little relief for the inner troubles of young people. As we discussed in part 1 and part 2 of this series, the current culture is toxic for families and for young people.
What can we do about it? Clearly, we can’t change the culture right away, so what is a person to do?
Benjamin Franklin famously penned, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Does this apply to avoiding anxiety, depression, and addiction. Absolutely!
No young person intends to get addicted to anything. Generally, an addiction begins small and benign, then grows like a cancer undetected, until it’s a serious problem. For this blog post, we will focus on that intermediate stage of growth, when it is neither too soon to detect nor too late to treat effectively.
The most common concern of parents regarding dependency is related to electronics, and it goes something like this: “We struggle constantly with our kids over screen time” or “I know my kids use screens a lot, but the screens are literally everywhere. What can be done?” Yes, screens are the big deal now – for kids and for parents. Are screens as dangerous as heroin? No! Are they as addictive? Yes, they are! Just talk with some middle school boys about Fortnite (click here to learn more about it). They will tell you how addictive it is. It is basically electronic meth for most middle schoolers. Here is an article about the drug-like effects of screen-time on the teenage brain.
When we talk about substance abuse, we should include electronic substances, such as video games and social media, not just illicit drugs and alcohol. We should also include caffeine, tobacco, junk food, and any other unhealthy dependency on a thing to feel good quickly, mask feelings, and escape reality. An unhealthy dependence on any substance is what we are trying to avoid.
Moderation is the goal, however there are some children and people who just can’t handle any amount of certain substances, so keep that in mind. People have different tolerances for different things. Don’t treat all your kids alike. Know them and be realistic about their abilities to handle addictive things. Most parents are too optimistic about this, partially because they do not want to know and partially because they are blinded by love. But keep in mind that whatever problem may come is treatable.
Now, Let’s get to the prevention tips. Remember, Rome was not built in a day. Don’t try to radically transform your family at once. But by all means, take a big step today.
Relationships matter most in the fight against the addictive culture. This is a countercultural fight, as the culture becomes increasingly obsessed with individuality. Don’t let your kids be self-consumed individuals. Young people need to know that they are loved and will not be left.
The most important relationships to a young person are always the parents (or the primary caregivers), and a close sense of attachment to them is the most important thing that will help a child grow up well. Secure attachment is the deep knowledge that they are protected by caregivers who care deeply about their wellbeing and will never betray them. Most adult addicts will tell tales of an insecure home life as a child, and that is no coincidence. A leader of an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter recently told me, “100% of the addicts I have met were lonely when they started abusing alcohol. Isolation and loneliness is behind most addictions.” A safe, loving home life is an insurance policy against addiction. It is not an absolute guarantee, but it is good insurance.
Talk openly. Do not hide the facts from your kids about why people abuse alcohol, drugs, sexuality, etc. Why they like it, what the consequences are, what addiction looks like, how hard it is to end an addiction…. More importantly, foster an environment at home in which children can talk openly about all sorts of things. Be a good listener, in other words. The best place to do this is at the dinner table. Yes, eat meals together. Not every meal will yield good conversation but some will, and that is gold.
Develop a Healthy Marriage. This might be the most difficult thing of all, but it is might be the most crucial of them all. Parents who embody secure attachment in marriage are far more likely to have children who feel secure. The whole family needs to know that nobody is leaving, everybody is committed to each other, and love is paramount in the home.
#2 – Encourage Face-to-Face Socialization
Encourage your child to have other kids over to the house. Be present without hovering, provide food, and make an entertainment plan. But minimize screen time and maximize physical activity and laughter. Or take friends to the movies or a sports game or anything just to be with others. Kids do not need lots of friends, but they need at least one good one, in order to feel connected to someone else. Think of the quality of friends as far more important than the quantity or coolness of friends.
#3 – Create Community Ties
Young people need to connect with others in a variety of ways, so that they can feel connected and important with others their age. Make sure your child has some working relationships with other kids and adults who are not addicts. Get your kids involved in small communities, such as youth groups, sports teams, scouts, robotics club, or anything that is both social and constructive. And don’t forget about church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. A community of faith can be deeply meaningful for kids and adults alike.
#4 – Create a Healthy Lifestyle
Sleep is a huge factor. Studies have shown that kids who have a healthy sleep routine are far less likely to use drugs. Exercise is another big factor, since stress is a huge cause and substance abuse, and exercise is one of the very best ways to reduce stress. And, of course, a healthy diet helps kids not just with their physical health but with their mental health. Sleep, diet, and exercise are the holy trinity of health.
#5 – Delay Gratification & Reward Work
Make sure your child has some helpful responsibilities around the house and is paid in appreciation as well as money. Children who feel helpful and are reimbursed fairly for their labor will not only feel connected to the family but will also learn the value of money. Encourage kids to save their money and then spend it on something meaningful to them – a guitar, a bike, or whatever will reward work, savings, and patience. A child who appreciated delayed gratification is less likely to rely on instant gratification all the time.
#6 – Stress Management / Relaxation Activities
Nearly every counselor who helps people with anxiety or depression will teach their clients some relaxation techniques related to some form of deep breathing, meditation, prayer, walking in nature, and taking time to rest daily and weekly (sabbath). Learning to unwind is crucial.
#7 – Fasting / Learn to Live Without
The concepts of fasting and sabbath are essential to good mental health. We all need to practice rest a little bit each day and at least once a week. We can rest in many ways, but it is most important to rest from the activities and substances which tend to be addictive. The electronic sabbaths might be the most important thing to do in this era. Social media, if used at all, needs to be limited, so fasting from social media is a must regularly. Kids need days off of video games. Many kids will learn that “life is better without ___________,” or at least without so much of it. Whether or not they recognize it, kids need a break from the things they love the most.
All of these things are countercultural, so they may seem old-fashioned or outdated, but they will lead to health and happiness. The culture may promise that, but it does not deliver it. In the long run, countercultural kids will be far more healthy, happy, and successful.
In conclusion, if you suspect substance abuse of any kind, do not shrug off the use of these “lesser drugs” as just “kids being kids.” The goal is to develop children who do not demand instant gratification all the time and who see the value in moderation. That is not always possible, but it is never appropriate to give up on a kid. Never embrace an addiction to something that keeps kids from dealing with their real-world problems. Always seek the healthy way, not the cultural way.
** For those who are struggling with some sort of addiction, it can be very complicated, since it is often a set of physical, emotional, and mental addictions. The tips above will still be helpful for the addicted child or teenager, but it is more important to get professional help and seek further information. Never ignore an addiction.
** As a resource, this is an excellent website outlining more ways to mitigate the risks of addiction in children: Keep Kids Drug Free