Book Review: Raising Drug-Free Kids: 100 Tips for Parents

Aletha Solter is renowned for her previous books, The Aware Baby, Tears and Tantrums, and Helping Young Children Flourish. Her most recent book is Raising Drug-Free Kids, 100 Tips for Parents.

A valuable resource for any father or mother, the book is divided into six chapters. ‘The Basics’ presents ways of helping children of any age, and the other chapters address different age groups – ‘Birth to 3 years’, ‘3 to 6’, ‘6 to 12’, ‘12 to 18’, and ‘18 to 25’. 

The tips range from showing parents of newborns how to foster healthy emotional development to reassuring parents of young adults that they can still help their children attain the emotional health that will help protect them from the need to use drugs.

‘The root cause of most behavioural problems, including substance abuse, is not a lack of discipline but rather a lack of connection,’ says Solter.  As with the skill of Aware Parenting, which she developed, the three keys to this approach are parents:
1) connecting with their children,
2) using non-punitive discipline, and
3) accepting their children’s feelings. 

Raising Drug-free Kids also gives specific ideas about how to give drug-related information to children of differing ages—another important part of drug prevention.

The introduction finishes with the following: You will find that keeping your children off drugs is not the only positive outcome of this approach.  In addition to becoming drug-resistant, your children will grow up to be emotionally healthy, intellectually competent, cooperative, non-violent and compassionate, and will become autonomous without the need to rebel during adolescence.

Here is a brief taster of some of the tips (much more detailed in the book): 

Remember that it is never too late to help your child at any age.


The Basics

Help your child feel connected
Research has shown that adolescents who feel more connected with their families and schools are less likely to use drugs. 

Don’t spank your child
Studies have shown that spanking correlates with later substance abuse, as well as later depression and violence.

Create a climate of emotional safety
There are many ways of doing this, for example: spend time with your child, provide pleanty of physical closeness, respect your child, avoid punishments and rewards, and support your child to express feelings. Avoid sacrificing your own needs and becoming resentful.

Find healthy ways to cope with stress
Your child will learn how to cope with stress from watching how you do it.


Birth to Age 3

Strive for a drug-free pregnancy and birth

Prenatal drug exposure is only one of many factors that can predispose children to using drugs.  While there is plenty you can do to help your child if there was some exposure, it is most optimal to avoid taking addictive drugs during pregnancy and aim for a non-medicated birth.

Never leave your baby to cry alone
Babies can feel terrified when nobody responds, and this abandonment can lead to feelings of powerlessness, lack of trust, low self-esteem, and chronic anxiety later in life.  The cry-it-out approach undermines the very basis of secure attachment, which requires prompt responsiveness to infants.  In contrast, Solter recommends the ‘crying-in-arms’ approach.  When a baby’s feelings are listened to and continue to be heard into childhood, your child and teenager will talk to you about her problems because she trusts you with her feelings.

Respect your child’s body
Your child will learn to take care of himself and will avoid things that harm his body later.  For example, hold your baby as much as possible, explain what is happening to him, caress him, and never hit him.

Respect your child’s attachment needs
Healthy attachment is vital to your child’s emotional health and drug resistance.  Foster secure attachment by holding your baby as much as possible, responding sensitively, and minimising separations.

Allow your toddler to say ‘no’
When toddlers are punished for saying ‘no’ to their parents, they may be ill-equipped to say ‘no’ later on to their peers.
 
Elicit cooperation through non-authoritarian methods
Using punishments or rewards can lead to rebellion in adolescence, with drug use a common form of rebellion.

Be patient with temper tantrums
Crying and raging are a healthy way to release stress.  When children express their frustration and pain, they let out pent-up feelings and learn that their feelings are accepted.  Teens often use drugs to numb painful feelings that they haven’t had the opportunity to express in childhood.


Ages 3 to 6

Don’t punish your child

Studies have shown that punishment can be the root of adolescent problem behaviours, particularly because they tend to lead to later rebellion.  When the child is doing something you don’t enjoy, there are three possible reasons: a legitimate need; a lack of information; or upset feelings that need to be expressed.  Democratic discipline, where the needs of both child and parent are taken into account, allows loving limits without punishment.

Don’t isolate your child to control her behaviour
For drug resilience, your child needs a strong connection with you that includes unconditional love, acceptance of her feelings, and effective approaches to meeting her needs.  If you send her away when she cries or has a tantrum, she learns that you can’t be present with her strong feelings and is likely to hide them from you as a teenager.

Don’t use rewards or bribes
Rewards teach children to do things that bring immediate gratification.  The major appeal of drugs is that they produce an immediate reward in the form of intense pleasure.
 
Encourage healthy eating, but trust your child’s food preferences
Controlling your child’s eating may mean he loses connection with his internal cues of hunger and sense of fullness, and may lead to rebellion later on. 

Allow your child to cry
When your child cries and you are present empathically, he learns that uncomfortable feelings go away when they are expressed.  He does not learn to fear feelings. When older, he will be surprised why people would want to numb painful feelings with mind-altering drugs. 

Teach your child the difference between poison, medicine, and food
Talk to your child about poisons in the home, such as chemical cleaning agents, and describe the difference between medicines and food.


Ages 6 to 12

Listen non-judgmentally to your child’s problems

One of the major causes of substance abuse in adolescents is the desire to keep painful emotions under control.  Instead of judging, blaming, denying, or trying to fix your child’s feelings, listening helps your child stay connected, understood, and loved. 

Avoid stimulant medications
These mask underlying problems and prevent real solutions. They also teach children to take drugs to control their behaviour and feelings.

Address the underlying causes of hyperactive or inattentive behaviours
Possible causes for hyperactive, inattentive, or impulsive behaviour include: physical (e.g., toxins, brain injury); psychological (e.g., unhealed emotional trauma, pent-up emotions); environmental (e.g., unmet needs, school stress). Actions you can take include: minimise stress; minimise screen time, avoid punishments and rewards; provide plenty of unstructured time; play with your young child every day; and don’t stop your child from crying or raging.

Get to know your child’s friends and their parents
In doing this, you will know who is influencing your child. You can may also be able to influence others’ children, which can help form a safety net for your child.

Hold family meetings
Interviews with teenagers have revealed that they often use drugs to rebel against their parents’ authoritarian control, and numerous studies have shown that punitive discipline can lead to delinquent behaviour.  Weekly family meetings set the stage for solving conflicts and setting rules in a democratic way.  Your child will learn how to resolve conflicts and will be less likely to rebel in adolescence.

Teach your child ways to get high without drugs
Drugs can give an intensely pleasurable experience.  Showing your child how getting high naturally will lessen the allure of drugs.  These highs include experiences in nature, strenuous exercise, singing, and humour.

Get professional help if your child has experienced trauma
Traumas include physical and emotional abuse and neglect, death of a family member, separation, divorce, illness, witnessing violence, etc.  Trauma can cause hyperactivity, impulsivity, aggression, inability to concentrate, and defiance.  Traumatised children are at high risk for later substance abuse and depression.

Give your child information about drugs
Research the various drugs available to your child and talk to him about their psychological and physical effects. 

Teach your child the legal consequences of using drugs
Let your child know the legal consequences for possessing or selling various drugs.

Teach your child media and consumer awareness
Help your child to understand advertising and how companies make money.  This will help her to be more discerning if offered drugs by peers or a drug dealer. She will also resist being influenced by glamorous images of legal drugs.


Ages 12 to 18

Spend regular one-on-one time with your teen

Your teen needs you to be interested in his life and available to spend time with him.  Sometimes it’s as simple as that.

Do things together as a family
Teens whose families frequently eat dinner together are less likely to abuse drugs.  If your teen is reluctant to join in with the family, attempt to work out why and rectify the situation.  
Provide adequate supervision
Know where your teen is; make your home attractive for her; supervise social events in your home; get to know the parents of your teen’s friends; and let your teen know that you are available, twenty-four hours a day, to fetch her by car (without criticism or punishment).

Solve conflicts democratically
If you use punishment to change your teen’s behaviour, he is likely to feel resentful and rebel.  Teenagers are less likely to use drugs when their parents use democratic approaches rather than authoritarian ones.

Introduce your teen to spiritual practices
Drugs can mimic spiritual experiences, making them very enticing.  Adolescents are often searching for meaning and the answers to the big questions such as, ‘what is the meaning of life?’  Support your teen to find practices that give her a sense of meaning and connection, such as meditation, yoga, singing, poetry, dancing, and spending time in nature.

Encourage your teen to do something to improve the world
Reducing discouragement and pessimism can reduce the risk of getting involved with drugs.

Teach your teen stress-management skills
These include: body awareness and relaxation; identifying sources of stress; time management; and emotional release.

Explain why drug use is especially risky during adolescence
There are many increased risks, including a greater risk of illness and death from drug use during adolescence—and more vulnerability to addiction.

Role-play imaginary scenarios involving drugs
Practice in confronting difficult situations, such as being solicited by dealers, aids in being able to effectively resist them.

Be alert for signs of drug use
For example, be aware of any smell of drugs on clothing or breath, the frequent use of products to mask drug use (such as breath fresheners or incense), missing cash, physical symptoms such as shaky hands, slurred speech, and bloodshot eyes, and many other possible signs.

Avoid five major mistakes if your child has tried drugs
For example, don’t respond with punitive discipline, don’t ignore the problem, and don’t protect your child from the natural consequences of his drug use (‘enabling’).

Confront your teen lovingly if you suspect drug use
Research has shown that parents becoming more involved with young adolescents who have begun to drink alcohol can prevent the drinking from progressing.

If your teen regularly abuses drugs, convince him to get treatment
While much easier said than done, sometimes working with a mutually trusted friend is more effective.


Ages 18 to 25

Don’t pressure your son or daughter to pursue a specific career

If you trust your child to make his own career choices, her is likely to feel less stressed and thus less likely to take drugs.

Keep in touch when children leave home
Send emails, cards, letters or texts, and show interest in your child’s life.  Avoid giving advice and calling too often. Expect that she may not call or e-mail you as much as you contact her. Keep her up to date with family news and organise occasional family reunions and family trips.

Make your adult child’s home visits pleasant
Welcome him warmly, and include his favourite foods and family traditions.  Avoid getting rid of his old possessions without asking him first, and avoid giving unwanted advice. ‘He will feel that he has roots from which to go forth into the world, and this foundation of security will give him the courage to face life’s challenges with confidence.  The more solid this foundation and his connection to it, the less he will need drugs to cope with life’s inevitable ups and downs.’ 


A final word of encouragement
It is never too late to help your child, even if you think that her behaviour or drug use resulted from things you have done (or not done).  Remember that you have always done as well as you could do at the time, and that your child has also been influenced by many other factors.

The most important theme running through this book is that meaningful connection can both prevent and heal behavioural and emotional problems.

Above all, get the support you need, and don’t ever give up.  


Aletha Solter, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, founder of The Aware Parenting Institute, and the author of four books, including The Aware Baby, which has sold over 100,000 copies.  She lives near Santa Barbara, California.  See www.awareparenting.com

This article was first published in Kindred Magazine,
Sep - Nov 2008 (see www.kindredmagazine.com.au)