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Building Protective Factors Key To Substance Abuse Prevention

Newtown Bee By Larissa Lytwyn

Parents take countless safety precautions for their children every day.

Young children are vaccinated against a myriad of illnesses. Tots are carefully strapped into car seats; safety belts are both a driver and passenger requirement.

Imagine, said psychologist Joanna Rosen during Newtown Parent Connection’s last forum on November 9, if parents took the same precautions for their families’ emotional well-being as they did for their physical state.

Dr Rosen gave the forum’s approximately 104 participants a comprehensive view of the protective factors that, if consistently outweighing risk factors, could help curb youth substance use and abuse.

This model, which evaluates the number of risk and protective factors in a child’s community, peer group, family, and school environment, was formed from the results of a landmark 1999 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

While overall drug use has declined in recent years, said Dr Rosen, usage is beginning at younger and younger ages.

Research indicates that use of substances such as marijuana is actually higher in suburban areas than in urban ones.

Dr Rosen emphasized the link between substance abuse and mental health disorders.

“About 44 million Americans have a diagnosable mental health disorder,” she said. Among this number, approximately 20 percent are youth aged 9 to 17. “This works out to about one in five children,” said Dr Rosen.

It is estimated that as many as two-thirds of this number are not getting the help they need.

“Imagine if your child was [physically] sick, and you couldn’t get the help you need,” said Dr Rosen. She described mental illness as merely the emotional equivalent of a physical malady, and derided the stigmatization mental illness often incurs.

It is estimated that 30 to 60 percent of substance abusers have a diagnosable mental disorder.

Dr Rosen made clear that there is a line, albeit an at times blurry one, between substance use and abuse.

“Of course, it doesn’t mean that if a child has experimented, they have a [disorder],” she assured.

Still, the link between mental illness and substance abuse, which she characterized as use so pervasive that it interfered with a person’s ability to function daily at work, school, and in the family, is marked.

The most common mental health illnesses associated with substance abuse are mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety and, at times, the more significant issue of bipolar disorder, or manic depression.

One question in the NIDA survey measured youths’ take on how their parents felt about substance abuse.

Of those who said that their parents were strongly against substance use and abuse, 11 percent admitted they had used an illegal substance within the past month, compared to 28 percent who said that their parents were not clear on their stance.

“It’s important to note that if you haven’t taken a strong position on substance use, or even talked about it,” said Dr Rosen, “you might as well have said ‘Go for it.’ Be clear.”

The number of substance abusing youth was also higher if the student knew adults who abused substances regularly. Dr Rosen encouraged parents to lead by example in their own lives, avoiding the classic hypocritical stance, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Parental monitoring, she said, could also be a key factor in whether or not youth abuse drugs.

In the NIDA survey, eight percent of youth who said their parents monitored them closely abused substances, versus 28 percent of those who said they could pretty much do whatever they want.

“The attitude of ‘Hey, they’re a teenager, they can do what they want as they get older and become more independent,’ can be tricky,” said Dr Rosen.

While the autonomy of adolescent milestones, such as acquiring a drivers’ license or earning a later curfew, can be an exciting time for both teens and their families, the reduction of direct adult supervision can also make the time a precarious one.

On the positive side, youth who said they lived in close-knit communities were less likely to abuse drugs.

“When I was growing up in New Jersey, there were sidewalks,” said Dr Rosen. “We knew each other. Other than Main Street, I don’t know if those sidewalks exist in Newtown. Ask yourself, if your child needed someone in an emergency and there was no family home, could they rely on their neighbor? Get to know your neighbors.”

Dr Rosen praised the Newtown Parent Connection for its role in adopting a strong antisubstance abuse stance in the community.

Research shows that youth are, indeed, less likely to use and abuse illegal substances if they are frequently exposed to antidrug messages in their schools and communities.

Additionally, youth who said that religion was a strong guiding force in their life were less inclined to abuse substances by, according to the NIDA survey, a 5 to 23 percent ratio.

Research also clearly shows that youth who have a high number of substance abusing friends are much more likely to abuse substances themselves.

“Look at your child’s friends,” said Dr Rosen. “Has their social group changed at all?”

Academic performance can also be an indicator of vulnerability to substance use; generally, the lower the grade point average, the greater the likelihood of substance abuse.

Of course, Dr Rosen continued, a failing student is not bound for a spiral into drug abuse.

“Look at the risk and protective factors as an equation,” she said. “Factors can outweigh each other.”

It is also important to note, she said, that not all substance-abusing youth have the same factors.

“My grandmother, who just passed away recently at age 90, was a heavy smoker her whole life,” said Dr Rosen. “And she began smoking at age 9.”

The risk and protective model, she said, offered guidelines, not an end-all diagnosis.

A common symptom of substance abuse, such as grade decline, can be a subtle one.

“It’s not A students going to a D,” said Dr Rosen. “It’s A students becoming B students, C students becoming D students, and so on.”

Building Protective Factors

In addition to discussing, within a statistical context, the various risk and protective factors, Dr Rosen discussed how families could build their number of protective factors for children from preschool to high school.

On the preschool and elementary level, said Dr Rosen, it is important that potentially antisocial and aggressive behavior is curbed early.

“It’s important that children know what is expected of them early on,” she said. “It irks me when a parent allows their toddler to act out because it’s ‘just their age’ and ‘they’ll grow out of it.’ They need to learn right away that such behavior is not appropriate.”

Moreover, parents need to ensure that their children learn the values of listening, sharing, and following directions. They can also be taught responsibility early.

For example, parents can advise their children to clean up their toys after they are done playing, additionally illustrating the values of listening comprehension and following direction.

It is also important, said Dr Rosen, for parents to be consistently involved in their students’ lives, attending parent-teacher conferences, making sure their children do their homework, and encouraging their children to become involved in extracurricular activities.

Research indicates that children will be less likely to be involved in substance abuse if they are involved in two or more extracurricular programs.

As their children become older, parents should provide continuing emotional and academic encouragement.

Transition, whether it is caused by a family breakup, a family move, or a move from middle to high school, can make children especially vulnerable.

“Remember to think about an issue through your child’s perception,” said Dr Rosen. “Remember, the younger they are, the smaller their world is.”

Finally, Dr Rosen emphasized the value of resiliency.

After September 11, Dr Rosen said she worked extensively with families coping with loss loved ones from the World Trade Center attacks.

During this time, Dr Rosen did a lot of resiliency training, teaching clients the value of using skills, including a sense of humor, adaptability, flexibility, creativity, and respect for others, to create a stronger sense of self-worth.

The next Parent Connection forum is on January 19 and will featured counselor Wendy Davenson, who will discuss family protective and risk factors.

For more information on Newtown Parent Connection, visit For more information on risk and protective factors, contact Dr Rosen at 203-482-9274. Used with permission Copyright © 1999-2004 Bee Publishing Company


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