You don’t need me to tell you that there is an opioid and heroine crisis in this country. Thankfully, as the number of users—and related deaths—climbs, more people are paying attention to the problem. Here’s how I see it. The powers that be continue to bark up the wrong tree—adjusting the rules for prescribing…looking for ways to reduce overdoses…and trying to help people overcome addiction. But that’s not where the problem lies. It started when the users were children…and it started at home.
In my view, this is a sociocultural problem more than a drug problem. And it’s been coming on over the past two generations as our health-care system has burst forth with medications that can solve pretty much anything that ails you and we have all been socialized to use those drugs.
Have you hung around a playground lately watching moms and their kids? Or listened to the language many parents use when talking about their children’s lumps, bumps and boo-boos?
“Does it hurt? Do you want Tylenol?”
“You have a cold. Do you want Benadryl? Tylenol?”
“Are your allergies bothering you? Let me give you Benadryl”
“Does your tummy hurt? Can I get you Pepto-Bismol?”
“You have a cough. Let’s go to the doctor and get some antibiotics”
I have had numerous conversations with doctors who begrudgingly gave a prescription for an antibiotic to “cure” a child’s ear infection, even though research has shown that ear infections generally are not caused by bacteria and so will not be helped by the prescription. When I asked why they gave the prescription even though they knew it wouldn’t help, they said, “The parent made me do it, and I didn’t want to lose the patient.”
Getting the picture?
And when children have trouble focusing on schoolwork, how many parents take them to be diagnosed with ADD/ADHD and treated with Ritalin/Ativan or another version of speed, instead of looking at the home environment to see if it is conducive to self-control and attention? Are the children sleep-deprived, which may be making a mild problem far worse? Have the kids been raised with a constant stream of action-packed video games rather than being taught to enjoy board games or the pace of nature and quiet. Have the parents been so busy with their own lives that they are not spending engaged time with their children and giving them much needed attention?
According to Alice Aspen March, creator of The Attention Factor, specialized techniques to improve communication, when children don’t get the attention they need, they will act out to get whatever attention they can. Yet parents often assume that it must be a physiological problem. After all, it couldn’t be anything that they, the parents, are doing—they have read all the books and signed the kids up for all the best dance, gymnastics, karate, swimming, robotics, etc., classes they could find. They have given them everything!
But are they sure? There are children who truly have ADHD, but nearly six times as many children were on ADHD medications in 2013 than were on them in 1990 (3.5 million versus 600,000). There’s clearly something going on.
Meanwhile, let’s look at what many parents are modeling for their children. Pain relievers galore for every type of ache, pain, bump and bruise…antihistamines and DayQuil/NyQuil when it’s cold, flu or allergy season…acid-suppressing medications for gastric distress…and an array of emotional- and sleep-support options that include everything from Xanax (alprazolam) and trazodone to antidepressants and more.
Why then are we surprised that our children are medicating themselves when they often are taught at home to solve problems with some kind of chemical? That’s especially true if they are left to fend for themselves and have no one to talk to about what is troubling them. These days, friends don’t know how to talk—they just know how to text and Snapchat, and many parents are so focused on their own challenges that they are not available to truly hear what their kids need.
I realize the addiction problem is cross-generational—it’s not just kids. But in order to make a change for the future, we need to start with the root cause. Yes, illicit drugs have been around for eons, but the culture of got-a-symptom-take-a-pill has blossomed since the 1950s. The parents of today were the children of that era. We thought everything would be perfect…and then it wasn’t. Then we tried to create perfectly happy children by giving them participation awards instead of letting them win and lose. In the end, they still end up losing because we haven’t taught them how to succeed in the face of challenge and how to bounce back from losses.
If we want our children to become strong independent adults, then we need to teach them the skills to do so. We should help them learn to recover from adversity. When they fall on the playground as toddlers, encourage them to pick themselves up, rather than rush do it for them. When they hit the inevitable social challenges that come with school, help them strategize options to handle it on their own, rather than calling the parents or principal. And when they come home with a sniffle, give them a chance to beat it before giving them a drug to silence their body’s efforts to fight it on its own.
If children are taught that they don’t need to stand up for themselves because their parents will fix the external world and some chemical will fix their internal world, then there is little for them to aspire to. Humans are capable of tremendous achievements—if we give them a chance.