How to protect kids from addiction

A new book helps parents navigate the complicated world of alcohol and drugs with their kids. It will help parents raise empowered kids, too.

Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science and parenting journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.

Welcome to my second Parent Expert Q&A, which I’m so thrilled is with author and educator Jessica Lahey. You might know her first book, The Gift of Failure, which is exceptional and a New York Times bestseller. On April 6, Jess’s new book, The Addiction Inoculation, went on sale. I read it as soon as I could and I highly, highly recommend it.

Based on the latest science, the book explores in detail what parents can do to protect their kids from addiction — but Jess’s advice will have more broad-reaching benefits, too. Among other things, it will help parents develop open and honest relationships with their children and nurture them in ways that will build their self-efficacy. And lest you think the book is for only parents of tweens and teens, it’s definitely not: The conversations parents have with even young kids can shape their relationships with their bodies and their decision-making skills in long-lasting ways.

I asked Jess a handful of questions about her book and about how parents should handle substance-related issues with their kids. There’s so, so much more in her book, so I encourage you to check it out!

Why did you write The Addiction Inoculation

I was raised in a house with an alcoholic parent, and in my forties, became an alcoholic myself. I got sober in 2013, and once I had my own sobriety in hand, my attention turned to my two sons and their genetic legacy. Genetics is about 50 to 60 percent of the risk picture when it comes to substance use disorder, and knowing that, I wanted to understand the rest of the picture. I was also teaching in an inpatient drug and alcohol rehab for adolescents, and wondered constantly about how my students ended up in my classroom, and what might have been done to prevent substance use disorder in them. Most of all, I wanted to understand what the phrase “substance abuse is preventable” means, what I can control and what I can’t, what’s myth and what’s based on evidence. 

When should parents start talking to their kids about alcohol and drugs? How do you suggest that parents bring it up?

Substance abuse prevention starts early — as in preschool if possible. However, it does not start with drugs and alcohol, it starts with conversations about health and harmful substances, self-advocacy, helping kids feel empowered and effective in their ability to stand up for themselves. The discussions grow and mature along with the kids, progressing to conversations about ways to say no to things you don’t want to do or that don’t make you feel safe. As kids go through the middle grades and on toward middle school, talk about their brains, how drugs and alcohol are so much more dangerous to their maturing brains than in adulthood. If they are going to start experimenting with drugs and alcohol, it’s going to start in middle school, so substance abuse prevention programs that begin in middle school start too late. 

If you're a parent who likes to have a glass of wine with dinner, or a couple of drinks on weekends, how should you talk about your drinking with your kids? 

Drinking around kids is absolutely fine — as long as the drinking habits and messaging about why you drink are healthy. If you say you are having that glass of wine in order to feel better about your day, or to unwind, to deal with your emotions, or that you NEED that drink in order to make other parts of your life more manageable, your kids will learn that drinking is medicine for bad feelings. This can be the hardest part of teaching kids about substance use, especially if your relationship with drugs and alcohol makes you nervous. Start with your own habits, then model healthy ones — along with healthy messaging — for your kids. 

Some parents believe that letting kids and tweens have sips of wine or beer every so often will protect them from future substance use and dependence — the idea being that giving them access to alcohol makes it less of a forbidden fruit. I've also heard that some parents allow their teens to drink at home with their friends because otherwise, they argue, it will happen elsewhere — and not under adult supervision. What are your thoughts on these approaches and why? 

There are three main reasons that being permissive about drinking (either because you are engaging in the myth of European moderation through sipping at home or because you assume kids will drink and want them to do it at home to be safer) results in kids who are more likely to have substance use disorder sometime during their lifetime. One, the idea that your can raise moderate drinkers by modeling moderation alone is folly, both because the younger kids are when they start drinking, the higher their risk of suffering from substance use disorder. Two, the European myth is just that — a myth. According to the World Health Organization, the European Union has the highest per capita alcohol consumption rates in the world.

The bottom line is this: Parents who have a consistent message of “No, not until it is legal” raise kids who are less likely to suffer from substance use disorder during their lifetime. With each passing year of adolescence, the risk of substance use disorder falls, and critically important parts of the developing adolescent brain are allowed to mature. Drugs and alcohol do both temporary and permanent damage to adolescent brains, and substances that are low risk in adulthood are actually quite damaging to still-developing brains.

What should parents do if they're concerned that their kids are hanging out with "the wrong crowd" — kids who seem like risk-takers or novelty-seekers who might drink or do drugs?

The research around the influence of peer groups has always fallen on the side of “if your kid’s friends do drugs, your kids is more likely to use drugs,” but the reality is much more complicated. Either way, parents should be aware of and alert to the influence of friends who might be using drugs and alcohol, but all of your children’s relationships are great fodder for conversations. In The Addiction Inoculation, I describe a relationship between my own son and his friend Brian, who was kicked out of school multiple times for drug and alcohol use, but their relationship was beneficial for both of them rather than damaging to my son. The picture is a bit more complicated than one might assume. 

One statistic from your book that jumped out at me is this: Kids who start drinking in middle school have a lifetime risk of substance use dependence of 41 percent — but when kids wait until 18 to drink, their lifetime risk falls to 17 percent. In other words, as you write, "delay, delay, delay." What would you highlight as the key things parents can do to ensure that their kids wait to start drinking (or using other substances) until after high school?

Kids need real information, real refusal skills based on inoculation messaging and every bit of empowerment and self-efficacy we can grant them. Kids who feel as if they have the skills and the scripts to refuse high risk behaviors are not only more likely to use those refusal skills, they are more likely to talk about their refusal and the protection of inoculation messaging appears to generalize to other high risk behaviors. In other words, if our kids feel as if they have the power and the words to refuse drugs and alcohol or premature sex, they are more likely to refuse when and if they need to.

 Is there anything else you'd like to highlight or mention?

The longer we can keep kids from drinking or taking drugs, the lower their risk of developing substance use disorder becomes. My book is not about being a teetotaler or an abstinent, prudish grown-up peddling sobriety for sobriety’s sake. I’m peddling self-efficacy. I’m peddling healthy brains and the support kids need in order to feel as if they are enough as they are, without the liquid courage, self-medication, and escape of addictive substances. 

A fun update: Last week, my newsletter was featured, for the second time, in The Week’s Best Parenting Advice round-up.

If you’re wondering why authors always ask people to pre-order their books, rather than to buy them once they’re published: Check out my new Instagram post on the topic. And please, please consider pre-ordering my book, How To Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes, which is out in July!