What Hong Kong parents can do to flag drug and alcohol risks to children
A counsellor offers tips on how to broach the subject of addiction with your offspring without alienating them
My 14-year-old daughter came home past midnight last weekend, smelling of alcohol and something else. My husband thought it was pot, and said it was normal to experiment with drugs and alcohol at her age. But I am worried she will become addicted to drugs.
It must be a horrifying experience, especially if your husband and you are not on the same page regarding drug use. Rather than go into the social and psychological ramifications of addiction in this short article, I’ll highlight some advances in neuroscience addiction research to illuminate the problem you are facing. In a city where, Dr Mark Gandolfi, head of St John’s Counselling Centre, reckons drugs and alcohol are “available, accessible and affordable”, your daughter needs you to make joint and informed decisions together to protect her from harmful involvement with drugs.
As Dr Nora Volkow, director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, has pointed out, people need accurate information about drugs, especially when marijuana is sometimes regarded as a safe drug. You should research or seek professional advice on the following:
the “gateway hypothesis”, how teenagers who use one drug move on to other drugs;
how marijuana’s potency has increased in the past few decades;
the harmful effect of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana, and how it alters nerve receptor function; and
the addictive properties of abusable drugs and their toxic effects (drop in IQ, increased risk of developing psychosis in adulthood, decrease in short-term memory, etc.) on the developing brain.
Professional advice on addiction might be the best way forward. Books such as Addiction Inbox and The Chemical Carousel by Dirk Hanson are packed with information on addiction and medical research, but easy to read.
If there is a correlation between the number of calls we get for help and the number of arrests for drugs among teenagers, then there seems to be an increase in drug use in Hong Kong in the past few months.
With the advance of neuroscience, we are becoming more aware of how the brain develops – from the bottom up and back to front. The prefrontal cortex, the cognitive part of the brain responsible for planning, organising and weighing consequences, won’t be fully developed until we reach the mid-20s. However, the nucleus accumbens, the reward circuit at the bottom of the brain that is responsible for experiencing pleasure, is developed first. That means teenagers crave pleasure and excitement but without the benefit of a fully functioning cognitive part of the brain to balance and to make sound choices.
Knowledge and education about drugs is vital, but it is not enough to prevent drug abuse. Prevention is only possible through behaviour change. You and your husband need to decide what is your boundary on drug use as communication with your daughter needs to be direct and firm – what is unacceptable and why. Set appropriate boundaries and help her choose alternatives that help her develop a sense of who she is and how to feel good without relying on drugs. Teenagers don’t want to be told what to do, but as parents we can guide them to discover paths they can become passionate about, that give them a natural high, instead of relying on the temporary high provided by drugs and alcohol.
How is your relationship with your daughter?
Family plays a vital role in drug prevention. You need to strengthen protective factors and curtail risk factors in your daughter’s life. Find out what is the root cause of her taking drugs: is it peer pressure or to mask another problem? Protective factors include maintaining a solid relationship, engaging in “open-minded” conversation with her regularly, and taking an interest in other areas of her life and where she hangs out (a number of public places are known for teenagers taking drugs). She needs to feel cared for but not controlled and have a healthy environment around her. You need to communicate that you accept and love her but help her to develop self-control, and strategies to respond to drug and alcohol misuse repeatedly; this skill isn’t acquired overnight.
If substance abuse has been confirmed, having a drug test is a must. You need to work with professionals who are able to explain the test results to you, to know what you are dealing with, and what will and will not cause a positive test result.
The follicle test is the most efficient and accurate of available drug detection methods. It provides a long window of detection about drug use in the past 100 or more days, but it is expensive and a sample needs to be sent to an accredited laboratory in the US or the UK, for analysis. According to Joanne Schmitt of The Cabin rehabilitation service, “Urine testing is too easy to cheat, and many test centres in Hong Kong don’t monitor enough to prevent cheating.” Teenagers want acceptance from peers, random drug tests can serve as the best defence against peer pressure – your daughter can blame her refusal to join others in taking drugs on the random test.
Lora Lee is a registered child psychologist and divorce co-parenting counsellor working in private practice in Hong Kong