How to Minimize Your Child's Risk of Addiction: Experts Weigh In

by Kimberly Zapata
Kentaroo Tryman/Getty

Addiction. It runs in my family. My husband’s family. Our family. Numerous individuals we know and care for have struggled with alcoholism, opiates, “hard” drugs, and pain pills. My husband has been sober for six years. My mother, on the other hand, lost her battle with addiction late last year. She was 65 years old. And while I know there is a genetic component to addiction — according an article on Scholastic, “scientists estimate that genetic factors account for 40 to 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction” — I want to save my children.

I want to protect my children, and I want to guide them. I want to minimize their risk. But how can I do that? What are the best ways to protect your child from addiction and addiction-related compulsions, illnesses, and disease? According to Dr. Steven M. Jenkusky, the medical director at Magellan Health Services, the most important thing is to talk about addiction. You can and should be discussing the matter with your children.

“Ask your child their views on drugs and alcohol,” Jenkusky tells Scary Mommy. “Avoid lectures. Instead, listen to your child’s opinions and questions about drugs. Assure your child he or she can be honest with you. Educate them. Discuss reasons not to use drugs. Avoid scare tactics. Emphasize how drug use can affect the things that are important to your teen — such as sports, driving, health and appearance. Consider media messages. Social media, television programs, movies and songs can glamorize or trivialize drug use. Talk about what your child sees and hears. Discuss ways to resist peer pressure, and be ready to discuss your own drug use. Think about how you’ll respond if your child asks. “

“If you chose not to use drugs, explain why,” Jenkusky adds. “If you did use drugs, share what the experience taught you.”

Of course, having the “talk” with your kids is important. It is essential that parents do not shy away from hard, tough topics and difficult conversations. But JF Benoist — an addiction counselor, bestselling author, and father of three — tells Scary Mommy we can do more than just talk.

“While ongoing conversations are helpful, consistent engagement is imperative to help a child stay away from addiction,” Benoist says. To do this, focus on making a heartfelt connection with your child. Engage with your child in simple ways and create rituals like:

– Making breakfast together on Sundays

– Both read a book that your child enjoys and talk about it

– Hike together

– Do sports that your child likes

“When you do these activities, don’t try to have an expectation about what you want out of this interaction,” Benoist says. “Simply focus on connecting with your child. Initially, a lot of children won’t want to do some of these things with you. But what we’ve found is that when you do an activity consistently, after you do it ten or twenty times, the child is going to enjoy and rely on this time together.”

That said, even if you do all the “right” things, they may not be enough. Individuals can (and still do) develop addictions. My husband, for example, was the son of an alcoholic. He grew up knowing the inherent dangers and risks, and yet he too turned to the bottle. Like his father, he became an alcoholic. Why? Because addiction is a complex illness. Because addiction is an insidious illness, and because— like mental illness — it is one which does not discriminate. Addiction doesn’t see or care about your color, status, or creed. Rather, it slips in, slowly and innocuously. It attacks suddenly, and it consumes you from the inside out.

“If your child does develop an addiction — or substance use disorder — know that there are highly effective treatments available,” Linda Richter, the vice president of prevention research and analysis at Partnership to End Addiction, tells Scary Mommy. “The keys to helping your child are to really understand how addiction works, how to reduce the potential for harm, how to encourage your child to get professional help, and how to help them find the type of treatment that will best fit their needs.”

“Most importantly, do not despair or give up,” Richter adds. “Addiction can be treated and there are many resources available to help your family get through this difficult challenge and come out stronger in the end.”

For more information about talking about and treating addiction or helping a loved one who may be struggling, visit the SAMHSA — or Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — website or the Partnership to End Addiction website.