A family history of addiction predisposes any young teen to problems in this area. But a child’s environment and experiences are just as powerful in creating a character that can resist compulsion. Parents can help set healthy habits in motion by letting kids grow through life’s challenges rather than trying to avoid them.
A parable tells about a man who observed a butterfly struggling to pull itself out of the cocoon. The man watched for a long time until the butterfly stopped, appearing to be stuck. Wanting to help, the man gently snipped off the remaining bit of cocoon. After being freed, the butterfly emerged easily but then stumbled and was never able to leave the ground. What the man didn’t realize in his attempt to help was that the constricting cocoon and the struggle required to get through the tiny opening were nature’s way of forcing fluid from the butterfly’s body into its wings—fluid that was necessary for the butterfly to be able to fly.
When we protect our children from struggles, we send the message that discomfort is an aberration rather than a normal and important part of life. Kids then attempt to avoid discomfort by seeking quick fixes—which are not solutions but temporary escapes. Since no learning takes place, they just end up creating more complex problems and eventually a self-destructive habit.
You can help your child become a person who is less likely to develop addictions—whether to alcohol, drugs, food, smoking, unhealthy relationships, work or anything else—by applying the following suggestions:
• Teach your child that he can tolerate discomfort. If he never has to experience discomfort, he will never know he can survive it. When your young teen complains that a chore, homework assignment, relationship or other challenge is too hard, use this opportunity to help him learn that he has the inner resources to endure these things. Talk with him about what he can do to get through the situation by developing a plan for action and for handling the unpleasant feelings. Teach him how to carry out his plan step-by-step in a timely fashion, yet realistically enough so he doesn’t get overwhelmed. Once he completes his "too hard" task, reinforce the significance of his ability to endure something that initially felt uncomfortable.
• Help her develop the wisdom and inner strength to delay gratification. When a child isn’t given everything she wants immediately, she learns she can handle that waiting period when life isn’t all that she wants it to be. She learns that she can benefit from acting thoughtfully rather than impulsively, and that she has the ability to do it. She learns this when she saves more money to buy a CD later rather than a candy bar now or when she studies for a test before watching TV. Every time she practices this choice her emotional endurance increases and her ability to resist falling prey to addictions lessens.
• Help him believe in his ability to impact his world. Addictions are more readily formed when a person believes that he is a victim, that he is helpless to change a situation for the better. When he learns to blame things outside of himself for his life circumstances, he gives away his power. Teach your child that he can stand up for himself, take action and make a difference in what happens in his life. When he complains about a situation, help him examine what he can change and what he cannot change, and then encourage him to do what it takes to make the possible changes.
• Help her to learn about the tremendous growth and strength that is gained only through challenge. Struggles are the building blocks of character and inner strength. Teach your child that there is a great benefit to be gained from seeing a challenge through to the end, and let her experience this for herself. If you let her quit something every time the going gets rough or when she starts to dislike it, she never gets the chance to build her emotional muscles and develop endurance. When she can remember that benefits are gained from going through a difficulty rather than around it, she will be more willing to tough out a hard situation rather than running away from it into a quick fix.
• Help him to develop healthy escapes. Give your child the opportunity to experience activities that relax him and take him away from reality in a healthy way. We all need to take regular breaks from our work—whether that is physical, emotional or mental—to recharge our energy stores and have balance in our lives. Help him to find a healthy hobby or activity—a way to kick back and be nonproductive without turning to substances to do it.
Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 22 and 26. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.