The practice of prevention—keeping young people safe and alive—often relies heavily on outcome-based evidence of educational approaches and initiatives, not to mention the psychosocial research that guides them.
But there’s a companion approach to be found in the experience of addiction and recovery, both subjects of an expo sponsored by the WellSprings Congregation outside Philadelphia last weekend.
One such story was that of a man I first met when he was a young adolescent. This sensitive 14-year-old, in the intervening years between our first meeting and our last, had found addiction on the streets of New York City in the form of alcohol, marijuana, LSD, mescaline, cocaine, MDMA and amphetamines.
Driven into darkness by well-meaning, if unresponsive, parents and a largely authoritarian upbringing, John, like many before and after him, found relief in self-medicating, or “de-sensitizing,” as he puts it. Academically challenged by learning differences, John first turned to acting out, or goofing off, for attention and subsequently found an ample supply of illegal substances from his new fans.
While there were alternative means of support available to John, the conditional love he found at home left him ill-equipped to accept unconditional affirmation elsewhere.
John’s journey to recovery—a feat he accomplished by age 20—holds important lessons about resilience and redefinition. It also speaks to prevention, synching with WellSprings’ Reverend Ken Beldon’s focus not so much on, as the old saying goes, “pulling kids out of the water” but, moreover, on traveling upstream to learn why they are falling into the river in the first place.
For John, it was his futile search for structure, order, guidance, direction… and acceptance.
Battling his way back, John assembled a puzzle of “protective factors,” (Bernard, B., 2002) including forming positive relationships, distancing from unhealthy people and situations, giving of himself to others (sharing of his experience, strength and hope from his newfound sobriety), holding a positive view of his future, learning to be good at something (using his natural skills professionally), finding a faith in something greater (growing spiritually), persisting in the face of challenges, and relying on his creativity (improvisation, acting, writing and drawing) as a means of self-expression.
Of these, perhaps most compelling is the first: positive relationships. In fact, the power of relationships in shaping behavior has been well-documented and forms the basis for the “sponsorship” model common in addiction treatment.
For young people, there are few relationships more important than those involving parents and other caring adults. Indeed, more than a decade of research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) highlights the influential role that these individuals can play in the choices children make, including ones that may end in addiction.
What advice does John have for parents and mentors everywhere? 1) Don’t direct or demand behavior, but ask questions, listen to the answers, and provide support; and 2) Role-model, and role-play, the skills needed to be freely emotional. He’s talking about “emotional intelligence,” which has been linked through research to risk reduction involving alcohol and other drug abuse (Coelho, K., 2012).
Like Boston-area psychologist Richard Grossman, John speaks to the “voicelessness” many young people experience, unable to identify and appropriately articulate their feelings. Instead they stockpile such emotions as anger, resentment, shame and fear.
As an antidote to voicelessness and the self-loathing it can create, John advocates for teaching children to relate to themselves in loving, nurturing ways (“self-soothing without self-medication”), urging the caring adults in a young person’s life to empower—rather than minimize—the search for love and the expression of emotion, moving them from the shadows to the light where they can be understood, harnessed, managed and considered in the context of healthy human development. Mental health professionals refer to this as a cognitive behavioral approach to emotional self-regulation.
Most important, John believes that the key to prevention lies in helping children to disconnect from shame and fear in order to engage in the type of self-communication that promotes positive outcomes and feelings. Shame, he says, fuels the fires of self-loathing, negative thinking and actions. Fear, on the other hand, is the absence of faith, or “false evidence of future events appearing real.”
And that can be debilitating.
Thus is shared prescriptive advice through a dynamic application of John’s experience tied to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s admonishment that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Stephen Gray Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, and a parenting expert at Kidsinthehouse.com. For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com.
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