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 

Character Matters Sooner Than Later

Teenagers may think that the middle and high school years don’t matter much, and that having fun is paramount. Or they might think that making good grades, making the team, or being popular is what matters most. Those are common viewpoints held by teens and by the culture at large.

Everybody has their value system, but here is a different way of looking at the teen years. We’ve all heard that the teens are building character, one mistake and life lesson at a time. Let me put it a different way: Teens are building a reputation right now, and that reputation will follow them, unfair as that may be.

If I could speak to every 7th grader in the world, I would say something like this:

“Kids, listen up. Who you are right now in school does matter, and here’s why. Who are you are now is how others will remember you 20, 30, even 60 years from now. It’s a snapshot etched in their memory. It may not be fair, but it’s a fact. People will remember what kind of person you were, and it’s that lens that they will see you through, until you are able to replace that lens, which takes a lot of time. Continue reading “Character Matters Sooner Than Later”

(Un)Happy Holidays

The Holidays — the six weeks of Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, and New Years — are a magnifier. In general, happy people get happier, sad people get sadder, lonely people get lonelier, etc.

For some, life is going pretty well, and the holidays are the most wonderful time of year, chock full of sentimental decorations, music, food, smells, and traditions that celebrate love, peace, family, friendship, and all that is good in life. The holidays are the icing on a good cake. Bring it on. All of it.

For others, the holidays are not so happy. Instead, it is a time full of the most painful reminders of what is not present in their lives.  Continue reading “(Un)Happy Holidays”

The Social Combat of Being 13

A New World Order for Young Teens

tired stressed girl7th and 8th grade is when the social life of a child amps up in three ways: importance, intensity, and consequences.

At 13, a child’s social standing becomes extremely important to them, as it has become more important to all the other 13 year olds. For some, it is the most important aspect of life itself. Most teens would rather go without food and shelter than suffer any sort of social trouble.

At 13, a child’s feelings of insecurity, awkwardness, and fear are at an all-time high. The hormones are raging, the insecurities are constant, and the emotional swings are intense. The biggest concern of every day is how to get through that whole day without any public embarrassment. Their fears are fueled by the intense anxieties of their peers. It’s a sea of fears as far as the adolescent eye can see. Continue reading “The Social Combat of Being 13”

Your Family. Your Culture.

The most common theme among parents of young teens lately is that they want to live differently than the culture. Most parents do not want their kids to ingest the current culture of materialism, comparison, busyness, and anxiety. They don’t like what the culture is teaching and demanding.

Most parents want to be connected with their community, but they don’t want to live just like everyone else (too busy and too anxious). And they certainly don’t want the values of the pop culture to become the values of their children. On the other hand, they don’t want their kids to be social freaks, always on the outside looking in. It’s an everyday dilemma.

Without a doubt, it is difficult to grow up well when immersed in today’s youth culture, which is filled with empty entertainment, rampant consumerism, unhealthy body imagery, and every type of narcissism. It consumes them and then uses them as consumers.

It is so rare to get wisdom from youth pop culture today that it actually makes the news. Recently, Robert Downey Jr., the actor who plays Ironman in the Avenger movie series, said at the MTV Movie Awards“I advise you to dream big, work hard, keep your noses clean, be of service, and because you can, define your generation.” This was a shocking statement because it is so countercultural in the Hollywood / MTV world. The cultural norm is the opposite: have fun, be sexy, and take everything you can from this life.

But it’s not just youth pop culture that is toxic; it’s everywhere. It’s in the cafeteria, on Instagram, in the classroom, and in other families’ homes. The culture is teaching our kids to always look good, have all the right gadgets, and be the best at everything, in order to keep up with everybody else. It’s a culture of discontentment, comparison, and competition that is making our kids more anxious and less happy than ever. It’s never enough. It’s an insatiable more.

As a concerned parent, the question is, “How do you create a family life that is what you want?”  Continue reading “Your Family. Your Culture.”

The Power of Kindness

Josh was a normal teenager whose father died. His mother moved them from their home in the country to the city, with the hope that a fresh start would improve their lives.

But Josh was ridiculed in his new school for no good reason. In fact, he was ridiculed for a horrible reason.

Instead of responding with hatred or melting into melancholy, Josh chose to be kind. To everyone. Simply kind. And his world changed.

Josh’s kind strength is what our boys and girls should imitate in their own ways.

Motivate. Don’t Manipulate Your Kids.

lonely boy2Once again, his room isn’t clean, not by any standard. Her backpack, jacket, and shoes are scattered about the floor of the hall, again. His grades are sub-par in math, again. She is making the family late to school, again. He seems to be nonchalant about his music audition this weekend. She isn’t running enough to prepare for soccer tryouts next week.

How do you approach the lack of motivation: carrot or stick?

What’s the best approach: direct confrontation, positive affirmation, a new system of consequences? Push hard or back off? Constructive criticism?

Who knows? It’s a minefield, to say the least.

It’s a thin line between motivating your child and provoking him or her to rebellion. Motivating a child, especially a teenager, is not an easy road. There will be resistance, mistakes and regrets, and that is if you are doing it right.

Continue reading “Motivate. Don’t Manipulate Your Kids.”