Practicing Prevention With Your Children: 24 Skills That Build Resilience
Updated: Jul 21
As a continuation of our series on Substance Abuse Prevention, we are sharing the following article from another one of our panelists - Julia Jensine, CDP. You can hear Julia address anonymous questions from our audience during WHAT'S THE HARM: A Substance Abuse Prevention Panel this Thursday, 11/14 at 7pm in the library at Woodward Middle School. The event is free, but requires registration: Information and Registration.
Most drug abuse prevention is taught to kids when they’re old enough to have drugs offered to them and focuses on why they should refuse those offers. I don’t think that’s anywhere near as effective as what happens in the home before they get to that age. I’m far from a perfect parent myself, and I don’t have any kind of credentials to spout off about what makes a good parent, but 30 years of counseling people with addictions has shown me that there are some skills that are commonly missing.
1. LOVE THEM FOR WHO THEY ARE
The most important thing, through every age, is making sure your child feels cherished, which is way different from spoiling them. In fact, a kid whose parents don’t set boundaries for him or her feels unloved, just as a kid whose parents are authoritarian feels unloved. Make sure you know who your kid is. Your kid needs to feel seen, known, listened to, appreciated and wanted for who he or she already is—that’s the key. If a kid feels he or she belongs and is good enough, she or he will be less susceptible to peer pressure later on.
2. TEACH THEM HEALTHY HABITS
Teach kids to take care of their bodies: to sleep when they’re tired, eat when they’re hungry, brush their teeth, eat growing food, limit sweets, take vitamins, all of it. Teach them about staying away from harmful chemicals. Knowing what leads to feeling good and what leads to feeling bad in the end (even if good in the beginning) is invaluable when drugs become an option.
3. HELP THEM LEARN HOW TO HANDLE THEIR EMOTIONS
Take care of kids’ emotions when they’re small as a prelude to teaching them to take care of their own emotions when they’re older: give them enough physical and verbal affection, help them manage frustration by taking them to a calm place, or even by letting them thrash it out with you there to make sure they don’t hurt themselves or anyone or anything. Teach them that all emotions are acceptable; it is only how we manage them that reflects on us. And that we can endure any emotion. Sit with them and help them endure unpleasant emotions. Addicts feel like they could die from their unpleasant emotions, which is partially due to the effect of the drug on their brains, but being able to tolerate unpleasant emotions and get back to homeostasis—knowing you can get back to emotional homeostasis—is a huge protective factor against drug abuse.
4. RECOGNIZE AND RESPOND TO THEIR NEEDS
If you pay attention to your kids, their actions will tell you what they need from you. Are they falling apart in the evening? Maybe they need a calmer or earlier schedule, more time with mom or dad, more frequent meals. Reflect on it and you will know. If you see them as a book to be read and responded to, they will learn to see themselves the same way and will thus be better adapted to take care of themselves in varying situations.
5. SUPPORT HEALTHY BOUNDARIES
Let kids know they can say no. Kids who grow up having their boundaries constantly violated learn not to set boundaries. Rarely, if ever, do we see people with good boundaries in drug treatment. Don’t make your kids hug people if they don’t feel like it. Knowing they can say no to a hug from someone at age three is a prelude to knowing they can say no to sexual abuse or drugs later on.
6. PROPER USE OF MEDICATION
Model the responsible use of medicines and teach them not to put things in their mouth that they aren’t sure of. (Duh. But see the connection?)
7. ENCOURAGE SENSORY ACTIVITIES
Sensory integration is important in early childhood and leads to less sensory problems in older kids. Playing out in nature is good for this, as are playgrounds (hanging upside down, spinning on the tire swing—kids do what their bodies need to do). I think sensory issues are often part of the picture with kids who end up in my practice, who often have ADD and related issues. Outside play may not be the whole answer, but I think it’s one protective factor.
8. MODEL ABSTINENCE AND LIMITS
Model abstinence from drugs and very limited use of alcohol, if any. Never get drunk in front of your kids. Don’t smoke weed so that they even know about it. Kids don’t get, “I’m old enough and you’re not.” They get monkey-see, monkey-do.
9. PRACTICE HEALTHY STRESS MANAGEMENT
Don’t use intoxicants to manage your own stress. Model healthy stress management through living life at a reasonable pace, getting exercise, getting enough sleep, spending time in nature, getting support from people who love you, and doing things that you enjoy. Make home a place that everyone in your family likes to be. (If there is any kind of abuse going on in your home, this will be impossible.)
When your kids complain, listen to them and help them problem-solve within their own capabilities.
11. INSTILL VALUES
Teach children your values: honesty, integrity, critical thinking, grace and courtesy, compassion (for oneself as well as others), balancing perseverance against self-knowledge, etc.
Don’t let TV and the internet teach your kids values. The media teaches that happiness comes from status, money, beauty, and hedonistic pleasure. If your child measures himself or herself by those standards s/he will be less confident, less self-aware, and ultimately feel like a failure. When a child feels less-than, he or she is at much higher risk to use drugs. You can bond over drugs and make friends instantly; it’s a lot harder than making friends over shared interests, plus it’s a fake bond. So make sure you teach your kids what makes them valuable, not the media. If they feel valuable, they won’t be desperate for any friends they can get and thus gravitate towards the easiest ones. This comes with a whole slew of implications for media control.
12. LET THEM BE BORED
Let kids be bored so that they will find their own solutions to it (but discourage addictive solutions like automatic screen time). Addicts cannot tolerate boredom. Teach your kids to listen to what the moment is telling them.
13. LET THEM EXPERIENCE CONSEQUENCES
Let kids experience (within reason, of course) the consequences of their own choices. When they make a poor choice, help them find a way to solve the problem they created, if possible, or at least help them find a way to endure it. If you don’t teach them, they will be stuck learning this from the police and will end up mandated into my office, possibly after an expensive and traumatic court process.
14. CULTIVATE A SENSE OF COMPETENCE
Help (and let) your kids do as much as they can so that they develop a feeling of being competent. Letting little kids have unstructured playtime contributes to this—and to healthy processing of emotions. Teaching older kids to handle tools or to cook contributes to it. There are lots of options. Feeling competent is one way of feeling good-enough, which is protective against peer pressure to get high, and also gives kids the confidence to pursue healthy interests that they otherwise might not.
15. GET OUTSIDE
Kids need nature. So do adults. It’s calming and balancing.
16. GET TO KNOW THEIR FRIENDS
Make your house the hang-out house if you can. Get to know your kids’ friends. Listen to your gut about your kids’ friends. Teach your kids what makes a good friend and help them evaluate their own friends by a set of reasonable standards. The car is also an excellent place to get all the juicy info from your kids, and also to have important conversations that eye contact might make too intimidating.
17. PROMOTE SELF-AWARENESS
Teach self-awareness. What makes this unique kid feel good about himself or herself and what makes him/her feel bad? Choosing activities based on how you feel about yourself after you engage in them is a better standard than basing your judgment on how you felt during the activity. Learning to anticipate how you might feel afterwards then becomes a good decision-making tool.
18. PRAISE THEM
By the time kids are teenagers (and all our lives, really), they respond more to positive reinforcement than to negative feedback. That means that telling them they did wrong might go in one ear and out the other, but catching them doing right and praising them will stick better. So praise them for thinking things through, for delaying gratification, for contributing to the household, for being responsible about their pets and their homework, and for managing their emotions—these are all skills that addicts frequently either never had or lost along the way.
19. HALT: ADVANCED SELF-CARE
Teach kids more advanced self-care when they’re old enough to understand. “HALT” is a good tool—when you feel hungry, angry, lonely or tired, then halt what you’re doing and take care of yourself. (I think of the A as standing for both angry and anxious.)
20. ENCOURAGE THEIR INTERESTS
Encourage your kids to find and pursue what interests them so they will have something they can turn to for self-soothing, self-expression, and boredom control.
21. PRACTICE BALANCE
I think trying to find the balance between busy enough to be stimulated and routine enough to feel safe and calm is important at all ages.
22. SET A GOOD EXAMPLE
No one is a perfect parent, least of all me, but if I could tell parents how to keep their kids off my caseload, this is what I would tell them. Teaching kids to avoid drugs only comes at the end of a very long list of teaching them what to do, and years of setting a good example.
23. DON’T LET THEM DRINK AT HOME
There is one common mistake that I would ask parents to avoid. Many parents think that allowing the child to have alcohol inside the home where it’s safe will teach them to drink safely. Not so—those kids are at higher risk for developing alcohol abuse problems.
24. CONSIDER WHAT YOU ARE MODELING TO YOUR KIDS
One last thing: no drug treatment counselor can overcome a kids’ exposure to parental substance abuse at home. It’s monkey-see, monkey-do with kids, so do what you want them to do.
Julia Jensine, CDP, Eagle Harbor Counseling, LLC
eagleharborcounseling.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
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