A MESS- drugs/alco - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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A MESS- drugs/alco

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A   M E S S
How NOT to make A MESS of Conversations with children and teens
about Drugs, Alcohol, or Negative Behavior

Don’t call it:
Addiction-  Calling the kid’s behavior addiction implies a physical or cognitive weakness that leads substances or engaging in self-destructive behavior.  Addiction is also a highly stigmatizing label. Individuals often resist this label and effectively preclude any problem-solving or other change/growth process.  It causes everyone to lose focus.

Don’t make it:
a Moral issue-   A lack of will power and/or a deficit in character as the cause for substance abuse or negative or self-destructive behavior.  It’s an automatic insult.  Starting a conversation or a relationship by asserting that the other person is “bad” automatically damages interaction.

Don’t think it is just about:
Education-  This implies that if the individual is informed about the effects and consequences, he/she will logically refrain from use or behavior.   This includes scare tactics based on dubious “facts” or outright lies (the “Reefer Madness” movies of the fifties would an example).  Scare tactics often backfire when individuals discover that use does not automatically result in addiction, moral degradation, madness, and/or death.  Knowledge does NOT in of itself change choices.  Many users are MORE knowledgeable about their drug of choice than us!  People use DESPITE more than adequate education and knowledge.  An educational approach gives the implicit conclusion is that such individuals are STUPID! which is not an effective way to start a dialogue.

Don’t be distracted by:
Social influences-  This proposes that avoiding “bad” individuals and groups or choosing to socialize only with “good” individuals and groups leads to appropriate use or behavior, or abstinence.   This theory also ignores that many individuals who exposed to the same influences do not give in to such use and behaviors.  Actually, individuals with particular behaviors will normally gather and associate with like-minded and like-behaving individuals.  Stoners will find other stoners… not seek out straight arrows to hang with!

Recognize it as:
Self-Medication-  This makes sense.  Use or Self-Destructive Behavior is often caused by profound needs to self-medicate for significant emotional and psychological (and sometimes physical) pain.  Rather than pathologizing the individual with a severe label- as morally deficient, stupid or ignorant, or easily influenced by others, it focuses on the internal pain that otherwise may be missed- such as anxiety, depression, and loss.  It de-pathologizes the use or behavior by recognizing it as an attempt to avoid feelings that would otherwise be overwhelming.  

The individual may or may not be an addict.  The issue becomes not about labeling use or behavior as problematic, abusive, or addictive, but of inner psychological turmoil.   Morality is about survival in the face of overwhelming feelings.  Education becomes about the process of self-medication for emotional pain.  The peer group is exposed as group culture that supports self-medicating behavior.  Once the connection to self-medication to avoid suffering is made, then the adult or therapist can help the individual explore deeper feelings, and subsequently explore alternative (more healthy and less destructive) ways to deal with these intense feelings.
3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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