Easy Prevention of Substance Abuse

Necessary Obvious Statements

Children need to be loved and accepted by others. Children prefer to be loved and accepted by their parents and family members. When parents and/or family members do not, children seek that love and acceptance from others. Teachers and educational personnel are parental/adult substitutes, and peers are the sibling substitutes. Children learn acceptable behavior, attitudes, morals and ethics from significant adults. People use substances to “self-medicate”, to experience an alternate reality, because they have not learned the coping skills to deal with stressors in their lives. Coping skills require good communication skills (listening, attending, understanding and expressing), especially when dealing with emotions and perceptions. Maturation involves changing or shifting emotional attachments and perceptions of others or events. Children from homes with adults using/abusing substances are likely to continue the patterns; adults either accept/tolerate the same behavior or even directly provide them with the substances.

Teachers of “difficult” children know that children who are frustrated in school or who have less than ideal home lives demonstrate acting out behaviors: verbal and/or physical aggression, defiance of authority, emotional outbursts, and (usually starting in middle school) signs of substance use/abuse. Teachers also know that children enjoy learning and thrive in structured environments where consequences are known and enforced fairly and consistently. School failure is akin to failing to please parents. Children can tolerate some failure. When the failure is long-term and chronic, it proves to them that they are not loved and accepted by school personnel.

Researchers know that substance abuse rarely begins before middle school (grades 6-8). What they don’t consider is the structure of elementary, middle and high schools as factors in that initiation of substance usage. Elementary schools have self-contained classrooms of 25-35 students well-known to their teacher and peers. There are alliances of support networks for each child. He has a status within the group and is important to others in varying degrees. Sometimes upper elementary students will change classes as a unit in preparation for middle school. Movement remains tightly controlled and supervised. The number of students in each grade is typically between 50 and 80.

Middle schools have classes of 30-35 students for each period (40-75 minutes, depending upon the school schedule). In rural areas, students and their friends shift to a different level, changing only the structure of classes. In urban areas students come from several elementary school communities and are unknown to each other. The typical grade population jumps to 200-250 students. Where busing occurs, there may be 10 or more miles between the elementary feeder schools, so there can also be extremes in home and neighborhood characteristics. Student accountability is low. Most teachers have 150-200 students each day and can’t know their students well; they must teach content (information) that presumes students can read and write adequately. Students must establish new relationships among peers, usually on the basis of common classes. Students change classes and move about independently with little adult supervision. High schools continue the same structure only adding 3-5 middle schools as their “feeders”. The population in each grade is often 600-900 students.

Being larger to accommodate more students, the middle and high schools structurally have many options of places where students may avoid contact with adult supervision. When students cannot read, write or do math adequately, stressors increase and are compounded by their physical developmental changes from hormones. Stress levels, from within the child himself and from his environment, are extremely high. In high school, rejection by peers becomes another source for stress. These stressors all create the foundation for substance abuse.

Substance abuse doesn’t have to happen

When parents are involved with the child’s school experience and daily life, the parent remains the important adult figure. When the parent helps the child overcome the obstacles of greater academic demands, the child won’t fail. Hopefully, the parent helps the child overcome learning obstacles in elementary school. Supervising homework completion can provide opportunities to teach the child missing skills.

Teenagers normally shift away from centering on parents and into their own independent lives. Parents still need to guide them for what is and is not acceptable. Parental structure must “give” and allow the teenager opportunities to make decisions and solve problems, but when it remains in place children still have the security of belonging and being important to someone.

All coping skills, either instructional or emotional, rely on communications skills. Communications skills rely on adequate oral language and appropriate social behavioral skills (eye contact, attention, listening, etc.). Unfortunately, these coping skills are rarely taught, and parents must figure them out for themselves. Parents may find it worthwhile to seek sources to help them support their children.

Parents can prevent their children from abusing substances by keeping open lines of communication, compassion and loving acceptance, regardless of what the child does.