Raising Countercultural Kids in the United States of Addiction (Part 3 of 3)

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.

#1 – Create Deep Connections at Home

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 

Raising Countercultural Kids in the United States of Addiction (Part 1)

In the late 1990s, author J.K. Rowling invented the term “muggle” as a derogative term for the normal people of modern Britain. Muggles are all the ordinary human beings in Rowling’s wildly popular Harry Potter book series. Muggles do not have any magical powers or awareness of anything magical. They live for comfort, they conform to society, and they have petty concerns. They are boring and bland, at best – miserable and mean, at worst.

In the context of this very ordinary world of muggles, Rowling created a parallel universe of magic. At the center is Hogwarts, the school for youngsters who wish to pursue magic, a better way of life. Rowling knew that children wanted more than what the modern world was giving them and that they would identify with the struggle against muggles, scoundrels, monsters, and villains.

Young readers happily entered the Harry Potter universe in droves. Reading among adolescents exploded worldwide, as hundreds of millions of children read 600-page book after 600-page book. Even adults joined in. Rowling struck a chord. People want more magic, less muggle. And a whole generation, now known as the millennials, identifies with the Harry Potter, the boy who struggles to live with more magic and less muggle.

It is no different in America today. The typical American is a muggle. Isn’t it the norm to seek comfort and conformity? Isn’t it normal for us to be a little bit foolish, a little petty, and sometimes mean? Doesn’t social media illustrate these things pretty clearly? We are muggles, more often than not. However, if we are honest, none of us thinks of ourselves as muggles. Nobody wants to admit it. And yet, if we are honest and will peer around our blinds spots for a moment, we can see the muggle inside us and all around us.

Turn on the TV. Look at social media. Read the news. Just look around the very place you are sitting in at this very moment. Or go to a truly beautiful place, like a beach, and look all around. Don’t just look at the Instagram-worthy viewpoint, but look all around. It won’t take long to find something ugly, dangerous, or sad, like the kids glued to their smartphones for hours, rather than playing in the waves or building with sand. We live in a world that is both beautiful and broken, magical and messy, terrific and toxic. It is good to see things clearly within us and within the places and people around us.

The real world is not like Hogwarts where powerful forces of good win out over powerful forces of evil in fantastic displays of drama and special effects. The real world is not like Instagram, where everything is a happy highlight with stylish filter effects. Our children need to learn that life is imperfect, and that we are all imperfect. While some parents choose to protect their children from these truths, it is best for these truths to be explained very early in life. Our children can handle us walking them through the realities of life, with all the muggles and the magic, as long as we make sure they feel deeply loved and well protected within the family.

Facing the real world is what makes us healthy. It is when children face the world alone that they are vulnerable. And this is where society gets it all wrong. Children are taught to be individuals and to spend their energy on expressing themselves and seeking whatever makes them happy.

Western culture now values the self above all things: self-actualization, self-satisfaction, and self-justification. This sounds good and feels good, but unfortunately it does not deliver on its promises. Unchecked self-focus leads directly to loneliness, which can lead to very dark places, like depression and anxiety. It can lead to personality disorders, like narcissism.

Loneliness is a defining feature of America in 2018. Families are disconnected. Communities are disconnected. Sure, we are more connected than ever electronically, but we somehow feel less connected than ever to friends and family. It is normal for children to grow up without a sense of attachment to family or friends. They don’t know exactly where they belong or who they are. This is where things have gotten sideways with regard to mental and emotional health. This is why so many young people relate so strongly to Harry Potter, a lonely orphan who was neglected and mistreated by his adoptive aunt and uncle. Our kids feel lost and lonely in a world of muggles.

Psychologists know that a lack of deep emotional attachment to at least one caregiver, combined with a temporary sense of loneliness, creates emotional pain, most often in the form of depression and anxiety. In a formula: Lack of Attachment + Loneliness = Anxiety + Depression. For more information about the importance of attachment, click here.

America is sick with epidemic levels of anxiety and depression. 1 in 5 Americans has a diagnosed anxiety disorder, while many are undiagnosed and untreated. 1 in 6 will experience clinical depression in their lifetime. But the real story is the rise of anxiety and depression among young people now. An estimated 25% of teenagers have already experienced depression in their lifetime. Ask any counselor or school teacher if they think that anxiety or depression is increasing, and they will affirm the sad trend. A recent nationwide survey found something surprising about loneliness in the younger generation. “Our survey found that the younger generation was lonelier than the older generations,” says Dr. Douglas Nemecek, the chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna. Read this article for more information.

In order to relieve the sharp uneasiness of anxiety and the dull pain of depression, Americans cope by consuming substances that are highly effective at making a person feel better immediately. We have an insatiable appetite for what is easy and comforting to get more or what is easy and comforting to get more of what is easy and comforting… in order to avoid the difficulties within us and all around us.

We consume loads of junk food, alcohol, drugs, video games, social media, streaming video, pornography, and material goods – anything to help us feel better immediately. We feed the senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, and imagination in order to distract the mind, avoid family problems, avoid existential questions, avoid difficult friends, distract from negative emotions, and gain a little sense of control and comfort. Neil Postman wrote famously in 1985 that we are amusing ourselves to death with television. That was long before the internet and smartphones. Where are we now?

Unfortunately, our coping mechanisms are not powerful enough to overcome our mental health problems. Instead, we are caught up in self-destructive cycles, and we are addicted to our coping mechanisms. Some addictions are more harmful than others, of course, but none of them are good if they are helping a person avoid their problems day after day, year after year. If we do not face our fears and problems, then we are not growing. If we deny, distract, and desensitize too much, then we lose our mental health and are prone to addiction. And addiction is a slow form of death.

The good news is that we do not have to live as a muggle in the United States of Addiction. We can choose a better way of life. But that better way must be countercultural because the culture is toxic to mental health. The culture is toxic to the soul.

It is good news is that our children and teens do not have to settle for the so-called “good life” of being momentarily happy all the time. There are better ways of living. Coping is not the answer. There are ways to thrive, not just survive. Our kids can learn to be more magician than muggle!

 

* Part 2 in this series will examine how to think about addictive behaviors in light of what society tells young people. Part 3 will focus on the practical aspects of teaching young people to live free from addictions.