“Protecting students from high-risk activities should begin as early as kindergarten. It’s never too early and rarely too late to build resilience in students by teaching strategies for dealing with conflict and the temptations of high-risk activities.”
Bath salts. Dragonfly. K2. Fake pot. Spice Gold. Mr. Nice Guy. Ivory Wave. Vanilla Sky. Europa.
If there’s one thing we can depend on, it’s the relentless creativity and productivity of the underground illegal drug market. There’s always some deadly new way to get high, usually with a bizarre, seemingly innocuous name. It will instantly be given credibility and PR by countless Youtube videos of teens being wasted and apparently having a fine old time. Sometimes these concoctions can even be whipped up from ingredients found in your average medicine cabinet and spice drawer, or ordered over the Internet.
Kids are curious. They try it out, perhaps when friends promise an exceptional high with “all natural ingredients” or “harmless cold medicines.”
Synthetic drugs are not new. This category includes things like methamphetamines and MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy). Unlike drugs like heroin or cocaine, which are illegal to possess in even the tiniest amounts, crystal meth and ecstasy are made from “controlled” substances like ephedrine and pseudoephedrine (found in cold medications), which are legal to possess. And until this past June when a new law was passed, Canada had earned the unwelcome reputation as a haven for these drug producers because much of the key manufacturing paraphernalia was not illegal to own or sell.
Other drugs, like synthetic pot, contain a chemical version of the cannabinoid that causes the high associated with marijuana. This synthetic alternative to THC (tetrahyrdocannibinol) was originally manufactured to treat multiple sclerosis and chemotherapy patients. Though banned in Canada and some U.S. states, it is often sold openly as incense or “spice” and can be ordered online. It tends to be sold in 3 gram packets in various flavours.
Smoking synthetic marijuana can have such side effects as deep depression, hallucinations, feelings of impending death, and severe panic attacks. And since “fake pot” can actually be 3 to 5 times stronger than real marijuana, kids can get in trouble judging how much of the drug to consume. Smoking the drug has particularly destructive effects on the lungs (one boy who died smoked it out of a plastic Pez candy dispenser). It has been linked to several deaths in the U.S.
“Bath salts” is the name of another synthetic drug. It contains various potent chemicals, including mephedrone, which is a stimulant. Like fake pot, it is often sold openly as another kind of product (typically as plant food) and is often labelled “not for human consumption.” Side effects include increased heart rate and blood pressure, not sleeping, not eating and eventually becoming paranoid.
Dragonfly (or Bromo-Dragonfly) is an extremely potent and long-acting psychedelic hallucinogen. A dose of a few milligrams can be life-threatening. It’s usually sold on blotter paper, though tablets, capsules or powder forms are sometimes distributed as well. Although the effects of the drug can last up to 36 hours, the experience of the high can go from lucid to extreme psychedelic intoxication and back again, leading some users to mistakenly take more and risk overdose. There have been deaths reported by users mixing Dragonfly with pot or ketamines, and it is sometimes confused with the less deadly street drug called 2C-E, leading to tragic results in at least one case recently publicized on the Dr. Oz show.
So what practical advice can we offer to parents? Aside from knowing your kid and his or her habits, keep an eye out for sudden changes in friends, in behavior, school performance or physical appearance. Any unusual packages arriving by post, especially with customs declarations, should be promptly investigated.
Have regular discussions with your teen about the drugs that are out there, and he surprising ways they can be dangerous. It might not occur to a 14 or 15-year-old that they can have a stroke or heart attack that can leave them severely disabled or dead.
Parents should also educate their kids about what to do if they find a friend having seizures, vomiting or passed out. Too often, the life-saving measures that could potentially save a kid’s life are put off for precious minutes or hours simply because their peers are afraid of getting in trouble.
It’s the kind of advice we hope they never have to act upon, the kind of thing we don’t often realize we have to teach. But it can be the difference between a brush with the law and a funeral packed with high school students.
Why do some kids grow up in two-parent homes with all the apparent support and advantages a child could need, yet still end up making poor choices that lead them to problems with drugs, alcohol or other high-risk behaviors? Conversely, why do some kids come from broken homes, dysfunctional families or communities dealing with alcohol and drugs, and yet are still able to resist the pull of these activities?
While each individual case may be different, experts often point to the complex notion of resilience to explain the qualities that enable some kids to navigate safely through the pitfalls of high-risk activities, while others seem to inexplicably fall through the cracks.
When I teach workshops about risk prevention, I always make a point of covering what the American Academy of Pediatrics calls the “The 7 C’s of Resilience.” These seven points (competence, confidence, connection, character, control, coping and contribution) cover the key elements that kids need to deal with the challenges that life throws their way.
Knowing these qualities are part of resilience is only part of the battle; the key question is how to build on them so each child is best positioned to make healthy choices for themselves during their teen years and into adulthood. In my workshops, I focus in on specific strategies parents and teachers can use at different ages to build these qualities with kids. Ideally, building resilience is something we want to begin when kids are very young, but it’s never too late to start.
But while all of them are important, the academic literature on resilience is particularly emphatic about the importance of good coping strategies. Coping strategies make the difference between a kid who crumples in tears at the first sign of adversity and the child who is able to deal with the stress and figure out how to move forward to some kind of resolution.
It’s what all parents hope our kids can do. But that isn’t always the case.
As a university professor, I occasionally met kids with poor coping skills. Many of these kids don’t even make it to college, but often enough mom or dad hovered in the background waiting to pick up the pieces and help make everything OK. But parents don’t come to university classes, and they don’t micromanage their grown up children’s class schedules the way they might have in high school.
So when someone fails a test, or hands in an assignment late without any good excuse, or misses some important administrative deadline, the students with poor coping skills just can’t cope. They either blame it on someone else (sometimes that was me, their professor), fall apart in my office or drop or fail the class. They didn’t know how to process the stress of a demanding university program, or they couldn’t deal with the demands of a part-time job, or their romantic partners broke up with them. Or they partied too hard and it took a toll on their schoolwork.
The kind of stuff life throws at everyone is just too much for some people.
So what do coping skills look like and how do we teach them? Turns out that there are different kinds of coping, and they aren’t all equal. Passive coping skills are things like escapism and distraction: turning to television, video games or alcohol to get our minds off the crap we might be dealing with at school or at work. But while parking our brains at an occasional episode of Glee or an hour of World of Warcraft (or even a nice glass of wine, if we are over 18) isn’t a bad thing, it doesn’t actually help us work through the stress we have waiting for us when the TV or computer click off.
What we need to rely on more often is active coping, which are strategies that help us actively process the physical and emotional stress that is part of life. These are things like talking with friends or family, writing in a journal, playing an instrument, going for a run or shooting some hoops at the park. It can be playing a sport (though the stress of competition may become part of the problem for some). It can be writing angst-filled songs or complex lines of computer programming, doing yoga or pitching a ball against the garage door.
Active coping strategies involve thinking, even if it isn’t about the stressors themselves. They can involve creative or physical activity that helps work through pent-up frustration. They can involve cathartic expressions of emotion, even if they are not directly related to any specific problem. They may or may not include laughter, tears, anger and sweat.
Active coping helps people think more clearly, so they can eventually turn their refreshed attention to the issues at hand.
We can teach little kids active coping strategies by literally talking them through problems they might face, whether it’s rivalry with a sibling, difficulties making friends, dealing with a teacher or learning how to multiply. We can help them discover their own outlets for their frustration and give them a place to be creative. What we shouldn’t do is always turn on the TV or turn on the computer and get lost in the pixels of virtual play.
Most importantly, we need to model these active coping strategies for them. If we constantly lose our tempers, turn to alcohol or gambling or the television when life gets tough, we are showing them how to handle their own problems. And our kids are paying very close attention.
So if your child comes home from school in a foul mood, and they don’t want to talk about it, you might not want to push it. Depending on their age, you might suggest a walk together, whip up a batch of cookies or let them go up to their room and talk it through with their friends. But encourage them to do something.
As an investment in our children, teaching resilience has a guaranteed payoff.
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"What a crucial conversation, and what a talented speaker! Dr. Alissa Sklar’s presentation to Akiva School’s parent body was full of clear, relevant, down-to-earth facts presented in a highly engaging manner. No jargon, no scare tactics – just solid information and excellent advice. A no-risk program for parents." -Frances (Cooki) Levy, Head of The Akiva School ("The Power of Positive Parenting: Preventing Risky Behaviors for All Ages")
"Alissa is the consummate professional and speaks with great authority. We hope she will be one of our feature speakers at many future workshops." Kelly Wilton, editor and co-publisher of Montreal Families Magazine
RiskWithinReason is intended as a support and information resource. If you need counselling for your child, consider contacting a trained child psychologist. Your family doctor or CLSC can recommend one, or you can also visit Collage Therapies at http://www.collagetherapies.ca/en