“Just say no way there is anything more important than my communicating my unequivocal, unconditional positive regard and connection to my child“ is, admittedly, less concise, but the 40-year old slogan may benefit from updating. Just shy of 70,000 drug related deaths last year is a familiar figure to my gentle readers. Fentanyl, synthetic opioids, and cocaine lead the way. I would add that any number of suicides, heart attacks, and traffic fatalities are graciously reported to categories other than drug overdoses. Why compound the tragedy by marking the proper box? We lost a 27-year-old recently. He had been a three-sport athlete in high school before developing a severe case of substance use disorder. "Heart attack“ was a polite euphemism for his senseless death. In the sense that "gravity" rather than suicide could be blamed for the death of a man jumping out a 30-story window. The actual cause was drug-related. Mortgage the farm.
I am not alone in wondering what we as parents, teachers, counselors, psychologists, and treatment professionals could have done differently. Few correlations are perfect. Few variables are perfectly predictive. I have visited enough rehabilitation programs over the past 30 years to know. It’s easy to point a finger. It’s easy to say that these two things go together. This kid was from a poor family. He died of an overdose. But this other kid was from a wealthy family. And he ended up just as dead.
Substance abuse seems to overlap with learning differences. Learning differences can be correlated with anxiety. Anxiety and oppositionality frequently go together. Oppositional defiant kiddos frequently self-medicate. Self-medicating can morph into addiction. So many chickens. So many eggs.
The smart money lately seems to favor connection. If an adolescent feels securely attached, if the adolescent feels like she can tell her parents anything, if the adolescent feels like her parents trust her, if the adolescent feels like who she is is more important than the grades she gets--then parents lessen the chances of the adolescent becoming the worst possible statistic.
Kids with substance use disorder come from both sides of the tracks. Kids can feel lonely and marginalized anywhere. Kids can be lost in a five million dollar, ten-thousand square foot house; kids can feel like their needs are not being met in a run-down apartment. As always, the relationship between parent and child must be primary. You know the kid who says No, I won't try that; my parents would be disappointed. Their good opinion means too much to me?
That's the kid you want.
Conversely, the kid who doesn't care what his parents think may be more at risk. Which brings me to some Covid related advice which, counter-intuitively relates right back to increasing the likelihood that your kids won't end up dead in an alley. Keep paying your housekeeper. Even though she is not mopping your floors. Find your favorite waitress. Pay her too. It is possible that her employer at the restaurant is unable or unwilling to keep her on the payroll. Send your favorite waitress whatever tips she would have earned had she been working. Your children will notice your good action. Your children will internalize your generosity and decency. An action is worth 10,000 words and a monetary contribution is worth 100,000.
There is no better way to communicate the following lesson: We value you for who you are, not what you accomplish. We pay the housekeeper even when we insist on keeping her safe by not allowing her to come to work at our house. We value the waitress even though she does not have a PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago. We value our children too. We love them unconditionally.
Just say no to emphasizing accomplishment over connection. Just say no to valuing what your kids do over who your kids are. Just say no to just saying no. Instead model unequivocal, unconditional positive regard for your kids. Let them know that they are the most important thing in your life and improve thereby the probability that you are the most important thing in theirs. Just say hell no! to 70,000 more drug related deaths this year.