My 15-year-old son is very quiet and does not feel at ease with kids his own age. He struggles at school and when he comes home, he plays on his Xbox all evening. I sometimes find empty bottles of vodka in his room. How can we help him avoid relying on alcohol to ease his unhappiness -- which unfortunately is a pattern in our family?
There is a brilliant article on the Huffington Post about addiction that challenges the notion that it is primarily a chemical/drug issue. In the post, author Johann Hari describes his journey to better understand what drives addictive behavior.
His findings are revelatory.
Hari says, "If we can't connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find -- the whir=r of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe." He quotes professor Peter Cohen who says, "We should stop talking about 'addiction' altogether, and instead call it 'bonding.' A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn't bond as fully with anything else."
He goes on to say that "the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection."
When I posted this article on my Facebook page, there were numerous comments, primarily from people who said they have understood all along that drug and alcohol addiction is not simply a matter of brain chemistry. There are too many people who have addiction in their genetics who have yet been spared that difficult journey.
Hari points out that despite as many as 20 percent of soldiers in Vietnam using heroin, 95 percent of them simply stopped using (most, without rehab) when they were taken out of the "terrifying cage" of war and returned home.
Rats who were left alone and given unlimited access to water laced with heroin or cocaine for 57 days became addicted. But when they were taken out of isolation and placed in "Rat Park" -- a lush cage with tunnels and colored balls and yummy rat food -- they returned to a normal life after minimal symptoms of withdrawal. As Hari says, "The good cage saved them."
All this is to say that, your son is not destined to follow in your family's addictive footsteps. He will, however, need help stepping out of isolation.
What does he love to do, other than zoning out in front of a screen? If he seems to have no interests, think about who he was at the age of 7. Did he love animals? Was he always out on his bike? Did he enjoy drawing or making music? We can often uncover hidden passions by recalling the things that brought joy when we were children.
Your son may indeed be an introvert, but there are many teens like him who open up in one on one friendships. Look for activities outside of your home that are stimulating and fun, even if you do them together. Hiking with the Sierra Club may be something he enjoys. Helping at an animal shelter or tutoring at-risk kids can help him feel valued. Taking part in a computer programming workshop might be his thing, and could expose him to kids who may also feel more comfortable with machines than people.
The important thing is to gently steer him out of isolation and into activities that connect him with others, in ways that feel safe and manageable to him.
The digital world has brought many advantages, but it has also made it too easy for kids like your son to fall deeper and deeper into a solitary existence. Addiction is a powerful force, but more powerful yet is human connectivity. While addiction is a highly complex issue, it is always in our best interest to know ourselves as essential members of the human race. I wish your son the peace that comes from understanding he is unique, special, and valued.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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