Chesterton Tribune

How to teach children the dangers of addiction

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Addiction is a difficult enough concept for most people to grasp, those who rarely drink or don’t smoke, who can take or leave that first cup of coffee in the morning.

For children who’ve never been dependent on anything in their lives but the love of family or friends, addiction may be an impossible concept to grasp.

How, then, do we teach children about the dangers of experimenting with drugs, when the compulsiveness of addiction is as alien to their experience as the failing eyesight and creaking joints of old age?

Pat Bankston, an anatomist at the Northwest Center for Medical Education at Indiana University and a member of the Community Action Drug Coalition, grappled with that question in a recent interview with the Chesterton Tribune. As Bankston noted, the problem is not simply an inability to conceptualize addiction. Children already think of themselves as invulnerable and immortal. But they also think of themselves as unique, he said, and lack the wisdom or the willingness to learn from the examples of their peers. And they’re both skeptical and resentful of any interdict which would seem to limit their freedom at the very moment in their lives when they’re first truly tasting it.

Begin, Bankston ventured, with the growing body of evidence which indicates that drugs actually reconfigure the biochemical structure of the brain, and turn samplers into addicts by duplicating—“especially in the deep nuclei” of the brain—the pleasures associated with the most basic human appetites. Eating, for instance, is “wired in as something that’s pleasurable,” he said, “and the effect of these drugs is evidently to mimic that pleasure. That’s why we enjoy these drugs so much, and more and more evidence suggests that the neurons, the cells, are permanently altered by these substances.” Children need to understand that the mere application of mind over matter—will power—may not be enough to dodge an addiction to methamphetamine, say, or beat one to heroin, precisely because addiction represents the triumph of matter over the mind.

“Everything we do has an effect on the brain,” Bankston said. “That’s what memory is. These drugs have an effect that’s immediate and very pleasurable. And it’s that pleasurable part of it that makes these drugs very, very dangerous, because the brain is wired to repeat pleasurable events and to seek them out.”

Anti-drug educators—from teachers and coaches to parents and pastors—need to hit children where they live, Bankston said, and where they live, when they’re 12 and 13 and 14, is on the doorstep of a brave new world predicated on their autonomy. By experimenting with drugs they risk exchanging their freshly-cut apron strings for a biochemical ball and chain which will deny them liberty and volition alike, the freedom to choose their future. “They love their new-found freedom. And the truth is, when you are an addict, you lose every bit of that freedom. Not only do you lose freedom to the drug, you lose freedom to the world. The court system is going to get you. The prosecutorial system is going to get you. Your parents are going to get you. The drug dealers are going to get you. You have no freedom whatsoever. You are a zombie to the world and you have no free will whatsoever. Maybe that message: Do you want to be free? Do you want to be in control of your life?

Anti-drug educators also need to be honest with children, Bankston said: all drugs are not created equal. The process by which addictions to nicotine and methamphetamine root themselves in the brain may be similar, but their acute effects on a person’s health and well-being are vastly different. “A message that might work—and I don’t know if it’s ever been tried—is to say, ‘Look, life is dangerous. And you can’t tell how your body is going to interact with these things.’ Kids are going to experiment. The question is what they’re going to experiment with. And experimenting with these kinds of drugs could result in your suicide, could be the equivalent of suicide. And maybe that message would get across to them. I don’t think they know, I don’t think even their parents know, how the brain loves these drugs so much.”

Bankston believes accordingly that zero-tolerance drug policies in schools—which make no distinction between alcohol and heroin, for instance—may be counterproductive. “They tend to put things that are not good but not so bad, like coffee or cigarette smoking, in the same categories as these other drugs,” he said. “Pharmacologically they are similar but the effects on society are different.” Yet if children have been taught from grade school that alcohol is bad in the same way that heroin is bad, and then they see their own parents indulging in a can of beer or glass of wine at dinner, they may draw exactly the wrong conclusion about the acceptability and tolerability of heroin. “They’re looking to see if people are preaching at them, are hypocrites. They’re looking for phonies.”

Bankston is by no means advocating a loosening of drug laws. Nicotine remains an illegal substance for juveniles, he said, as alcohol does for minors, and society has an absolute interest in denying them to children. But the brain wants what it wants, and children need to learn, early and often, that their brains are only too vulnerable to the biochemical urgency of some drugs. “I’ve never tried cocaine. But from other people’s description of it, it’s just too good for this life. It’s probably too good for people to tolerate.”


Posted 6/4/2002