Children are greatly influenced by the environment in which they are raised and the world around them. With the increasing drug epidemic sweeping the nation, children’s environments are becoming increasingly dangerous. Dr. Harolyn M. Belcher, neurodevelopmental pediatrician and research scientist at Kennedy Krieger Institute, and Dr. Harold E. Shinitzky, psychologist and motivational speaker, have extensively investigated and recorded information on substance abuse in relation to developing children. They detail the types of conditions and technicalities that feed into substance abuse in young children. For example, aspects like social setting, genetics, gender, and socioeconomic position all play into the likelihood of a child abusing substances. Belcher and Shinitzsky use the phrase “prediction, protection, prevention” (952) to summarize their findings. Ultimately, they want to bring awareness to the rise in prominence of substance abuse in children and the factors that play into it.
On a molecular level, genetics can affect a child’s susceptibility to substance abuse and addiction. There are two types of patterns of inheritance when it comes to addictive tendencies: Type I alcoholism and Type II alcoholism. Type I is typically associated with “passive-dependent personality” types (954). Those affected by Type I alcoholism are usually involved in social pressure from peers and outside influence. On the other hand, Type II is associated with criminal behavior and early onset before the age of 25. It mostly affects males as well (954). Both of these patterns essentially leave children with a higher risk of developing addiction. Furthermore, children of parents who use drugs are also susceptible to drug addiction as well as alcohol dependency (945).
In relation to the parents of the siblings, the environment in which a child develops plays a great role in the substance habits of the child. Approximately 41.2 percent of African American children ages 12 to 17 have witnessed people selling drugs compared to 7.4 percent in the white community and 23.9 percent in the Hispanic community (955). However, African American teens “have a lower reported rate of drug use than their white peers” (955). Alternative to ethnicity, a child’s physical and emotional environment play a role. Abusive households are more likely to produce child addicts, where “women who were physically abused [are] 1.58 times as likely to abuse drugs than their non-abused counterparts” (954). The environmental factors affect males and females differently. Having messy, crowded environments with “little emphasis on conventions and religion” are known to affect females harshly, whereas boys were less affected (954).
Gender plays a heavy role in analyzing addictive tendencies. There is a striking element of a lack in self-control present in young boys (954). This lack of control points young boys toward substance abuse more than young girls. However, girls lack resiliency compared to boys. Resiliency is defined as “the property of an individual to overcome a negative set of life circumstances” (955). In other words, young girls are not as developed when it comes to coping with difficult situations compared to young boys. This element is largely what makes them subject to substance abuse. However, once developed into adults, males are three times more likely to experience heavy alcohol use (954). These types of patterns can oftentimes be predicted by analyzing a child’s behavior. Insubordination, lack of self-control, and lack of emotional awareness points to the direction of future substance abuse.
While there are many extensive factors that push children toward substance abuse, there are many factors that push children away from substance abuse as well. Belcher and Shinitzky refer to these as “protective factors” (955). Teaching children positive behaviors during their earliest years can help steer them away from drugs. Ideals such as “positive self-esteem, self-concept, self-control, assertiveness, social competence, and academic achievement” are all imperative in a child avoiding substance abuse (955). Teaching children resiliency and providing them with a strong basis of self-awareness makes them far less likely to struggle with addiction. Children must be taught healthy and productive ways to manage the downfalls in their lives to ensure that they do not turn to substance abuse as a means of coping. Instead of seeing drugs and alcohol as a last resort to cope, children can be taught to be creative, insightful, and mindful. Furthermore, prevention programs have been widely instilled in schools. These types of programs aim to make children further aware of the technicalities of addiction
When taking Belcher and Sihnitzky’s observations into account, I find myself using them to evaluate and reflect on aspects of my own life. Born and raised in a traditional Italian household, the way I was raised follows the protective factors and places emphasis on resiliency. As I grew up, I was taught to put forth my energy into being creative, productive, and efficient. Academics were of the utmost importance. If I wanted something, I was taught to work for it. Given that addiction runs in my family, my upbringing helped guide me away from such common tendencies. Aside from my own experiences, I reflected on these figures in terms of my extended family. When my cousin Dennis passed away due to an overdose, it sparked an inquiry: how did his upbringing differ from my own? When pulling back and comparing our situations, our backgrounds differed. He grew up in a chaotic, separated household with little direction. His parents were divorced. His mother, whom he lived with for the majority of his life, did not provide him the necessary support that a child requires. There was no emphasis on resiliency and healthy coping. Instead, Dennis coped by experimenting with drugs until he became an addict. When combined with his gender and the addictive tendencies in his genes, all signs point toward substance abuse. It is intriguing to analyze one’s childhood in terms of potential substance abuse in the future.
Belcher and Sihnitzky’s commentary provides a simple yet insightful look into the details of childhood substance abuse tendencies. They make it easy for individuals who are not scientifically literate to understand how addiction can play into a child’s life early on. Furthermore, it makes it easier for people to apply these concepts into their own lives and the lives of their children. Education is the most important aspect in preventing tragedy, so the way the doctors presented this information has the potential to save lives. Well into adulthood, there are remnants of a child’s upbringing that shine through. It is imperative to know how to prevent substance abuse in children, practice safe and healthy coping techniques, and inspire children to make the best decisions for themselves by providing a wholesome and loving environment.
- Belcher, Harolyn M. E., and Harold E. Shinitzky. “Substance Abuse in Children.” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, vol. 152, no. 10, Oct. 1998, pp. 1–9., doi:10.1001/archpedi.152.10.952.