Sat, Dec. 14

Seven lessons parents need to learn about drugs

Robin Williams once said that cocaine is God's way of saying you have too much money. That may be true for supermodels like Kate Moss, but it's hardly true for most kids fooling with cocaine.

Moss was featured in a recent article, along with "shocking pictures," using cocaine in a London recording studio. Today her career is in danger, along with the custody of her child.

Sad, yes, but it's hardly shocking to see another celeb fall from grace. The list is too old and long to shock anymore. Coke is in the schools, on the street corners, and for unlucky families, under the kid's bed. So what's a parent to do? There are a number of important lessons from the Moss story.

1. Don't let your income, no matter what level, make you complacent. Drug abuse does not respect incomes, high or low. A kid with too much money on his hands is clearly in danger of stepping on the accelerator in the bad judgment department. But studies also show that the lower the family income, the greater the chance a kid will use cigarettes or an illegal drug in his lifetime.

2. Use the Moss story to open up a dialogue with your child about drug use. I am not talking about wagging the finger or blaming the victim, no matter what her income. But a celebrity's story can be a gift to parents. The Moss story for a brief time puts the topic of drugs and alcohol squarely in the middle of millions of kitchen tables. It can save lives, if parents are savvy enough to talk with their kids about it. In my decades as a psychiatrist I've come to believe that dialogue is the single best way to keep kids safe from drugs and alcohol. A parent can't control every aspect of a teen's life, but she can shift the balance towards safety by talking. Kate Moss can help you kick things off.

3. Talk about cigarettes and alcohol. Cocaine was the drug du jour for Moss. You will need to start talking about cocaine. But only one high school senior in the United States in 20 last year used cocaine in his senior year. The major drug killers today are still tobacco and alcohol. The Moss story can be a starting point toward the topics of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana. These three are gateway drugs to the hard drugs, cocaine and heroin. It makes sense, then, to start with the train wreck and move backwards in time to its cause. You don't know Moss' drug history, and you don't need to. What you desperately need to know is your child's use of drugs and alcohol.

4. Listen to your child. This is not as easy as it sounds. Most parents think they're great listeners. Most kids likely think otherwise. It's hard for many teenagers to speak with their parents. Treat what they say as gold, not because it is, but because the process of being listened to will pay benefits down the road. Part of the problem is that we as parents have spent more than a decade telling our kids what to do, and how to do it. But teenagers need to talk things out as much as they need to hear your opinions. It's hard for us to move back and forth between the roles of limit setter and facilitator. But that's the job.

5. Don't moralize. Drug dependence is a disease. Kate Moss' fall from grace is a story of chronic illness, not immorality. Nora Volkow, for example, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, found that in cocaine addiction, the drug changes chemistry for months, and disturbances of the chemical in question, dopamine, are thought to be related to problems in motivation, focus, and pleasure.

6. Look for the red flags of drug use. There are times, perhaps more often than not, that teenagers are not in a talking mode. Some kids like to let their actions do the talking. Then it's the parent's job to pick up on the clues, and cues, a kid is giving off, and run with them. There are certain red flags that a child waves in front of you that mean trouble on the tracks. Common ones are cigarette smoking, frequent episodes of drunkenness, and run-ins with authorities. For parents specifically worried about cocaine, look to the red flags of unexplained weight loss, abnormal surges of exuberance or collapses into depression, and discoveries of drugs and drug paraphernalia. These are all indications for getting help from a professional.

7. If a child is in trouble, don't wait for things to get better. That's a gamble not worth taking. Drug use is a progressive problem, moving from casual experimentation to addiction. You don't want to wait for your child to slip off the slope into dependence. The sooner you act, the better the outcome. Get help! For parents whose kids are clearly involved with drugs, there is a mantra you cannot forget: treatment works.

Sometimes a parent will ask if talking about drugs, especially when they are used by celebrities, creates a copy cat mentality in kids that drugs are cool. My answer is that the risk is probably no worse than seeing hundreds of ads every week in magazines and televised sports. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, found that despite massive lawsuits, the cigarette industry in 2000 still managed to reach 80 percent of our kids with ads 17 times. We immunize our kids against the killers of diphtheria and polio. We can do the same for drugs and alcohol. The lives of superstars like Kate Moss can give parents the vaccine.

Henry David Abraham, M.D. is a psychiatrist affiliated with the Harvard Medical School and author of "What's a Parent to Do? Straight Talk on Drugs and Alcohol," New Horizon Press, 2004. For more information, visit

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