Q&A: Motherwell talks to best-selling author Jessica Lahey

Book cover of The Addiction Inoculation

In her new book, The Addiction Inoculation, mother, teacher, best-selling author and close-to-eight-years-sober Jessica Lahey offers a powerful and honest research-based guide about how to prevent substance abuse in children. Practical, compassionate, and using many of her own experiences as examples, Lahey introduces educators and parents to best-practice tools and conversation tips when it comes to talking to kids about drug and alcohol abuse. I had the opportunity to talk to Lahey recently about her new book—among other things, we spoke about the importance of constant communication between parent and child and the vital steps we can take in order to raise addiction-free kids.

Randi Olin: In 2013 you came out to your family, your kids, as an alcoholic. What was that admission like for you as a mother? Did it make it any easier that your sons were young enough not to have much memory of your drinking?

Jessica Lahey: Not much makes this conversation easier. I was so afraid they would think less of me, be disappointed in me, feel as if they could not rely on me. None of this came to pass, however, and the more time that elapsed between my last drink, the more they understand how committed I am to staying sober. So many good things have happened to our family since I got sober, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to hold on to it.

RO: A common theme in The Addiction Inoculation is the importance of “starting the conversation.” Tell us about the importance of family dinnertime, and about how family talks at the dinner table can play a role preventing substance abuse in childhood and beyond.

JL: Yes, the research shows that the more often kids eat dinner with their family, the lower their risk of substance use, but I try to think of “family dinnertime” as emblematic of whatever regular habit a family can engage in that allows for face-to-face conversation, a time when the discussion has the time and space to go beyond superficial topics such as “how did school go today?” It also allows for the opportunity to notice sudden changes in our kids, or creeping emotional trends that trigger your Spidey sense that something is off with your kid.

RO: How important is modeling behavior for our kids as it relates to drinking and substance use? From what age does that realistically begin, and briefly, what does that look like at each stage?

JL: We can’t raise moderate drinkers through talking or modeling alone, but it certainly helps kids frame why people drink, for good or for bad. When we say things such as, “Boy, I really had a hard day at work, I’m totally stressed out and my brain is fried, I need a glass of wine,” or show them that we drink in order to avoid or numb our emotions, they are more likely to use substances in the same way. People who drink in order to avoid negative emotions such as depression or anxiety are more likely to become problem drinkers, so our modeling should be about establishing healthy relationships with all mind-altering substances, legal or not.

RO: In terms of trying to prevent substance abuse, does it really matter why a kid decides to take that first hit, that first sip, that first pill? How can parents approach that causation head on, and what if we don’t know the why behind the decision-making?

JL: As I mentioned above, it really does. Kids who drink or take a hit in order to feel as if they are enough, to fill an emotional hole or avoid dealing with painful feelings are engaging in riskier behaviors as far as eventual substance abuse goes. However, it’s important to remember that many people can drink or use substances without having a problem with abuse. However, avoiding substance use disorder is just one reason we should be working to delay kids’ first use. Adolescent brains are exquisitely sensitive to the positive and negative influences in their environment, and addictive substances can do permanent harm to developing adolescent brains. Substances that are relatively safe in adulthood are less so in adolescence, so our messaging should be clear and consistent: not until you are 21.

RO: What approach do you recommend educators take when adopting school substance abuse prevention programs and how can school leaders make a difference, particularly at the middle school and high school levels?

JL: First of all, only 57 percent of schools are using any kind of substance abuse prevention program and of those 57 percent, only 10 percent are evidence based. Find out if your child’s school has a substance abuse prevention program, then check to see if that program is based on evidence and has a track record of efficacy. The good news is that many schools have social emotional learning (SEL) programs, and at their core, great substance abuse prevention programs are great SEL programs that start early and include a health (substance abuse) component.

RO: In your first book, The Gift of Failure, you focus on the importance of kids believing in themselves, or self-efficacy, to help them cope with life challenges in a positive way. How does self-efficacy play a role in substance abuse prevention, and what do you do for a child who seems to have a low self-efficacy? How can a parent reinforce their sense of self-worth?

JL: Self-efficacy is one of the most important gifts we can give our children because in conjunction with solid refusal skills, it helps them feel empowered. Kids who feel empowered to advocate for themselves, their health, and their safety are more likely to refuse drugs and alcohol and also more likely to talk to their parents about it.

RO: What kinds of talks can we have with our kids about close family members’ unhealthy relationships with alcohol while at the same time continuing to foster those relationships?

JL: As with all conversations around harmful substances—whether about why we spit out rather than swallow toothpaste, or why we don’t take drugs prescribed for other people—they start early and naturally expand as the child matures. Opportunities for these conversations can happen naturally when Uncle Phil has to go outside at Grandma’s house in order to smoke (Why do you think Grandma does not let him smoke in the house? If secondhand smoke is harmful for us, what do you think it’s doing to his lungs? Why do you think people smoke even if they know it’s bad for them?) or when a relative gets a little too drunk at Seder or Christmas.

RO: Should we keep the alcohol cabinets locked? If so, how can parents strike the balance of giving our adolescents the autonomy they need to grow while trying to put some boundaries in place?

JL: That really depends on the house and the level of risk in the house. In our house, for example, we don’t keep open alcohol around at all, simply because my it’s a threat to my sobriety. My husband drinks in a normal, non-alcoholic manner, and when he wants wine or beer or a cocktail with dinner, he orders a single serving, or a small serving and pours out what he does not consume. In doing this he’s not only modeling a moderate, non self-medicating way to drink, he’s showing my kids that in healthy relationships we respect each others’ health and safety. Sure, it would be easier for him if he could keep a big bottle of his favorite wine or whiskey around, but because he cares for me, he does not.

RO: You state that a teen’s choice of peers is one of the most significant influences on their decision to use. When our kids go off to college, we have little input about the choosing and interaction with these new friends. So how can we keep a handle on college drug and alcohol use? What kinds of conversations should we be having with them at that stage, and how often?

JL: This is another great place to model healthy relationships. We talk about what we get from our friendships—the good, the bad, and the ugly. If your child comes home from a friend’s house or tells you about a new friend and you hear anxiety or sadness in his voice, maybe ask what it is he likes about his friend. What does that relationship do for him? On the other hand, you can bet I tell my sons when a friend of mine calls ahead to a function we are both attending to make sure there will be non-alcoholic options available (I have one of these, thankfully!) and make sure they know we are friends because we look out for each other’s best interest and don’t encourage each other to act in ways that could undercut our health or happiness.

RO: Talking to our kids about our own college experiences with drugs and alcohol, how honest should we be?

JL: I always default to honesty, without romanticizing. In our family, we talk about all I lost due to drinking, and we even talk about the short-term memory loss and lack of motivation my husband experienced when he spent a year smoking pot while feeling sorry for himself because he was unhappy and disappointed with the fact that he was not fulfilling his potential. We talk about the fact that his discontent was a self-perpetuating cycle, that the more he smoked, the less effectual he became, and the less able he was to change his life for the better.

RO: What are your favorite addiction-themed memoirs?

JL: Oh, I have so many! There are the usual suspects: I adore David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy, of course, and Augusten Burroughs’ Dry, but I also LOVE Jarrett Krosocaka’s graphic novel Hey Kiddo. Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering is an essential read, as is William Cope Moyers’ Broken. Then there’s Susan Cheever’s Note Found in a Bottle, Olivia Lang’s The Trip to Echo Spring, Adam B. Hill’s Long Walk Out of the Woods, Erin Khar’s Strung Out, Mary Karr’s Lit, and Kristin Wandzilak and Constance Curry’s The Lost Years. Russel Brand’s Recovery is a hoot, as is Marc Lewis’ Memoirs of An Addicted Brain.

Book cover of The Addiction Inoculation

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