David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

A handful of sand in a pile. Remove one grain of sand. The pile remains. Remove another grain. There is still a pile of sand. Remove another grain and another and another. At some point, there are a few grains of sand. When did the pile of sand become only a few grains?

All kids experiment with drugs and alcohol. I didn’t want my 16 year-old daughter to be left out at parties, to be a social pariah. Of course, I allowed her to have a few beers, smoke some pot. Everybody at my high school did drugs and alcohol. There was nothing I could have done about it anyway. It’s not like I approved, mind you.

Sure the police brought her home a few times, said they found cocaine and ecstasy in her car. But my daughter said it wasn’t hers. And it’s not like she was doing poorly in school or anything; her grades were fine. I told her that if she wanted to smoke pot that she should do it at home–where I knew she would be safe. ‘It’s not you I don’t trust,’ I told her. ‘It’s them.’ But then the kids with whom she was hanging out started to look, well, “stoned, even during the day.” One kid in particular, I heard was a mid-level drug dealer, stealing prescriptions and delivering oxycontin to families in our neighborhood. But my daughter said that wasn’t true–that the rumors about the kid were spread because other kids were jealous. About two years after I first suspected my daughter of doing drugs, her grades started to slip. I asked her if maybe she should cut down but she said she had everything under control. Except the other day the police showed up again. This time they said my daughter was caught with thousands of dollars worth of prescription medications, that it’s a matter for the courts, and that she needs rehab.

I don’t know what to do. I always told her: ‘If you’re going to use drugs, just do it in moderation like I did.’


At what point did this child cross over the imaginary line from substance abuser to addict to chemical dependency?

I am sensitive to the great number of my students who smoke pot–only occassionally!–and (seem to) suffer no ill effects. I know there are high functioning doctors, lawyers and Indian Chiefs who drink to excess. I’ve heard of butchers, bakers, and candle stick makers whose lives are full and meaningful even though they take prescription pain killers every day.

I chat with families all the time about the “risks and rewards” of turning a blind eye to their adolescents experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

“Dr. Schmeckelferretz is now a respected heart surgeon in Philadelphia and he was a walking phamaceutical company all through high school, college, med school and residency. He was always so stoned, you could get high just by walking on the same campus.”

Perhaps. But is this the way to bet?

The problem with the Dr. Schmeckelferretz story is that it ignores the denominator. OK, skip the math word. The problem with the Dr. Schmeckleferretz story is that it doesn’t include the cemetery. For every Dr. Schmeckelferret, a successful heart surgeon in Philadelphia or elsewhere, there are a number of kids who never made it to med school, or out of high school for that matter.

Because they’re dead.

The only way to ensure that your children do not become addicted to drugs is to see to it that they never start. Otherwise the reward of the children being invited to parties doesn’t outweigh the risk

Simply stated: if you want the best chance of watching your children grow up healthy, of dancing at their weddings, of playing with your grandchildren*, do whatever you have to do to make sure that your kids don’t get started with drugs and alcohol.


Part Two

Recipe for Rabbit Stew. Step One: Catch a Rabbit.

Most families agree, it’s easier to keep kids from starting to use drugs than to get them off drugs once they’ve started. Which brings us to the–admittedly–harder question of how to help keep our kids from starting.

There are few models in our culture of kids having fun sober and there are even fewer models in our culture of kids being physically intimate sober. What can families do to increase the odds that their kids will stay away from that first experience with marijuana?

My permissive families argue that the controlling families are too strict. “That’s why the kids do drugs,” they suggest. “Because they’re not allowed to make any meaningful decisions.

My strict families argue that the kids of permissive parents are allowed too much latitude: “Of course those kids do drugs,” the say. “Look at how their parents let them get away with anything.”

I’m not sure that the relevant variable has to do with controlling families or permissive families. I would ask you to look instead at modeling–“Do as I say, not as I do”–seldom works. And clarity of message is critical: are you a “zero tolerance” household? Are you sure? Do your kids know that there’s a zero tolerance for drug and alcohol use? How do you know?

I’m also concerned with the “Everything is always going to be OK” message that many of my most loving families convey to their children. “Nothing will ever hurt” they exude, “and if it does there’s a pill for that.” I don’t have any research to back up this idea, but I bet a kid who experiences a summer cold under medicated or has some trouble attending in school but isn’t given a psycho-stimulant is more likely to avoid self medicating years down the road.

Lastly, I’m a firm believer in the “pick ’em” school of parenting. Nobody ever died from leaving a sweaty tee-shirt on the floor in his room. The “Nobody ever died from…” construction can’t be used in a conversation about drugs and alcohol. As parents we need to help our kids distinguish between that which we believe strongly–zero tolerance–and that which we prefer–folded tee-shirts.

Let me know what you think.

* Are these examples–dancing at weddings, playing with grandchildren–deliberately manipulative, designed to pull at your heart strings? Only if the manipulation works and I can help one child somewhere stay healthy.



Copyright © David Altshuler 1980 – 2022    |    Miami, FL • Charlotte, NC     |    (305) 978-8917    |    [email protected]