Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Children often innocent victims of adult addiction, drug abuse

For one 12-year-old girl, addiction is a drawing of a green monster with red eyes that has a steel band around her mom, dad and older sister. It carries a bag of alcohol, nicotine and inhalants.

For another child, addiction is a sketch of his mom and dad in a beer can, with the words “please stop” etched above in crayon.

And for a handful of kids, it’s an image of a broken heart, sometimes drawn with parent’s names on each side, or the names of a brother or sister, aunt or uncle.

Whatever the image, the picture is the same for kids who were asked to describe the disease: drug and alcohol addiction hurts families, especially children.

“It’s now a huge issue. Almost one out of three, one out of four kids are living in a family with alcohol or drug abuse,” said Jerry Moe, vice president and national director of children’s programs at The Betty Ford Center in California. “They’re the No. 1 at-risk group.”

Moe, speaking Monday at Indiana University of Pennsylvania to kick-off the 20th year of the Mid-Atlantic Addiction Research Training Institute Summer School, said that, though the issue is prevalent now, this is the time to stop the multi-generational disease and push back the first age a child may use a substance. Children in families with addiction are at a higher risk of getting the disease than those without any family history, he said.

“If one takes a coin that says at-risk and turns it over, it says at-promise. Some kids have the most incredible strength and promise. They just need safe people to guide them,” he said.

Ten years ago, the average age for a child to have his or her first drink was 15 years old, he said, but today the average age is 12 years old.

“Younger kids start regardless of any other risk and are more likely than ever to get harmfully involved,” he said.

Part of the reason for such prevalent effects on children has been a change in the family form over the last 35 to 40 years, said Robert Ackerman, director of MARTI.

“I don’t think children today are different than when I was a child. If you let a child do what they want, they’ll do what they want,” he said. “What has changed dramatically is adult behavior. Children in many cases are trying to survive changes in adult behavior in our culture.”

Child abuse, neglect, abandonment and divorce are some of the many interrelated problems that affect families suffering from addiction.

“We hear the African saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Well it takes that same village to stop the parents,” he said.

Pictures drawn by kids in the programs at the Betty Ford Center illustrate the feelings of guilt, shame, hopelessness, anger and sadness that children in families with addiction experience.

One girl drew a picture of her dad passed out on a couch the entire time she was with him for the weekend while she sat alone on a chair crying. Another drew an image of his mom with a bottle on a bed while he was on the phone with his grandpa, asking for help.

Conflict, Moe said, is what hurts families the most, but children are also hurt by what doesn’t happen in the family place, especially when they know something is wrong.

“They may not be able to name it specifically. They may not be able to name addiction. But they know something is wrong because they love their parents more than anything else,” he said. “… Kids know a lot. We don’t give them enough credit for how much they know and some feel they’re going crazy because no one validates.”

But the situation is not hopeless as treatment and research organizations are shifting their focus to advocate and work for all children, not just those from addicted families, Ackerman said.

Another step is for people to become conscious of the effects on children. It is important, he said, for adults to admit that kids are affected by their behavior, whether they realize it or not.

For Moe, anyone that can get involved in the life of a child can help. Forming relationships and letting a child know someone safe is there for them can help tremendously, he said.

“What are their strengths? Build them. Skills? Give them some new ones. Supports? Be one,” he said. “Help kids find the beauty and goodness inside.”

In his arsenal of games and techniques at the Betty Ford Center, his most potent weapon is love.

“It’s our most basic human need that from the time we’re conceived to when we take our last breath. We need to love and be loved,” he said.

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