Unhooked – Kids, Drugs and What Parents Can Do

By: Pam Dillon

Pat Poitevin is a dad with a passion. The father of three is an RCMP sergeant and coordinator of its Drug and Organized Crime Awareness Service (DOCAS) in Ottawa. As such, he is a protector of what we hold dear: our children and their future. A long time ago, in his early days as a police officer, Pat’s role was to arrest the bad guys involved in drugs. It got to him. Even now, his eyes darken as he talks about a world of misery and parents so jacked up on drugs their babies fended for themselves.

He doesn’t want that to happen to your family or your kids. In fact, the experience fueled a commitment to drug-abuse prevention that is rock-solid after two decades. Through DOCAS, he aims to change social norms and stop drug problems before they start.

A new normal
Like it or not, today’s kids are exposed to movies, music, videos and social situations that normalize and glamorize substance use and drug culture. The reality is anything but glamorous and DOCAS helps get that message across. Its programs focus on awareness and prevention so that people—including youngsters and parents—are educated and empowered to make healthier choices for the future. “It’s all about protecting your kids,” Pat explains.

Your kids do need protecting. If you think drug abuse can’t possibly happen in your neighbourhood or in your family, take a look at a few facts from Partnership for a Drug Free Canada (PDFC) at www.canadadrugfree.org:

• There’s a high percentage of drug use among kids in higher income families.
• The average age kids first try drugs is 13. That’s grade 7.
• One in five teens has taken a prescription drug to get high. In most cases, it was stolen from home.
• Canada has a higher incidence of drug use among students in grade 10 and 12 than the U.S.

Don’t be fooled, mom and dad, into associating drugs with back alleys and crack cocaine or heroin. Instead, look out for alcohol, cannabis and what lurks on the shelf beside your deodorant and toothpaste.

The medicine cabinet
A problem can start with your 12-year-old wandering into the upstairs bathroom and taking some of the pills left over from when you had knee surgery. Medication used to treat what ails you can be dangerously misused by your kids.

As most local residents know, a teen from Manotick died last summer when he overdosed on a prescription painkiller called Fentanyl. At a public meeting following Tyler Campbell’s death, parents warned of the potential for more deaths related to the highly addictive opioid. But Fentanyl isn’t the only opioid that is frequently misused.

Others include Tylenol with codeine, Percocet, Vicodin and Oxycontin. Commonly prescribed for pain relief, they pose a particular risk to kids because they’re readily available in the family bathroom and not recognized as dangerous for the very same reason. Students are “more likely to take an opioid than a cigarette,” notes Dr. Melanie Willows, clinical director of The Royal’s Substance Abuse and Concurrent Disorders Program. Prescription tranquilizers, sedatives and stimulants are also abused and sometimes mixed with other substances. When different drugs—including alcohol—are combined, they are particularly dangerous. As Pat Poitevin notes, “The most important drug dealer [to guard against] is actually your home medicine cabinet.”

The liquor cabinet

Although alcohol is the drug young people are most likely to use, it’s not innocuous. Kids don’t have the same alcohol tolerance as their parents. Since booze lowers inhibitions and impairs judgment, young people are more vulnerable to harm and more apt to do something dangerous when under the influence. Early use of this drug increases the likelihood of dependence. Worse yet, as teen brains are still developing, excessive drinking puts them at risk of long-term damage.

The weed kids smoke
Cannabis isn’t benign either. Whether it’s used as marijuana, hash or hash oil, cannabis affects the brain and its smoke contains some of the same cancer-causing toxins found in tobacco. While cannabis is one of the drugs kids are more likely to try, it is illegal and it’s also a lot more potent than many people realize. Marijuana grown today has a much higher concentration of the mind-altering chemical THC. The effect is unpredictable and differs depending on the individual, the situation and how the drug is used.

No youngster who takes a puff from a joint, a pill from a medicine bottle or a drink at a party expects to become hooked. However, the risks for addiction are real and these facts are helpful to remember:

• “The younger kids start using drugs, the more likely they are to become addicted,” the RCMP sergeant notes.
• If there’s a family history of alcohol or drug issues, kids are more vulnerable to developing an addiction themselves.
• Dependence can happen extremely quickly with some drugs, such as opioids.
• It’s impossible to be sure just how risky taking a drug can be. The potency, quantity, method of consumption, circumstances and a person’s unique characteristics all help determine the impact.
• Addiction can happen to anyone.

Jill Taylor* knows all about it. At a glance, this attractive, successful Ottawa mom looks to have the perfect family life. She and her husband have beautiful, bright kids, great jobs, a gorgeous home in an affluent neighbourhood, plus all the lifestyle bells and whistles. When they seemed to disappear from the social radar, people thought they were busy. They were busy all right, frantically busy trying to get help for one of their kids. “It was hell,” Jill says. After time spent in residential drug treatment, their youngster is back at home and at school, but the addiction battle continues. Families all over Ottawa are facing the same challenge and others.

While there’s no magic formula to shield your family from the harm of drugs, Pat Poitevin says there is a way to increase the odds youngsters can manage anything life tosses their way.

“The thing is to teach them to become resilient and critical thinkers, and to spark what drives them to succeed.”

Pat talks about an approach to childrearing—and drug prevention— based on 40 Developmental Assets. Established by Search Institute, a global leader in positive youth development, these assets are “building blocks that… can help kids grow up to be safer, healthier, more caring and more responsible adults,” he explains. They involve pretty common-sense stuff:
• support
• empowerment
• boundaries and expectations
• constructive use of time
• commitment to learning
• positive values
• social competencies
• positive identity

The more assets kids have, the better. Well equipped, they’re more able to avoid serious trouble when drugs materialize at a high school party or peers put the pressure on to try something dicey.

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