As soon as you become a parent, just about everything about your child worries you. It starts off with, “Is my baby drinking enough milk?” or “When will he start walking?” progressing to junior’s academic performance in school, and whether he or she is making friends with the right crowd.
As your child grows, your concerns get more complicated as well. A major fear among parents ― that our kids become addicts right before our eyes and we don’t even realise it until it’s too late.
In fact, we’re now aware that addiction isn’t only limited to drugs, gambling or alcohol. It can also manifest in other forms such as sex, food and even exercise. In fact, just last month, the World Health Organization recognised an addiction to gaming as a mental condition.
But have you ever wondered why some people are more prone to falling down the rabbit hole of addiction than others?
Factors that determine addiction
Addiction is based on a biological, social and psychological model, says Eleanor Ong, a counsellor at Cabin Singapore, a specialist addiction treatment centre. “With the biological part, the primary focus is the dopamine levels or the release of poor quality dopamine,” explains Ong. “Regular humans produce A plus quality-grade dopamine and addicts produce C minus grade of dopamine.”
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps to control the reward and pleasure centres and regulates movement and emotional responses. When you have an underactive dopamine system, you suffer from a decreased capacity to experience pleasure in your life.
“So, they [addicts] obtain less pleasure through natural routes, such as work, social engagements, romantic relationships and other day-to-day activities,” points out Vinti Mittal, a counsellor and director at SACAC Counselling, which works with kids and young adults. “Which means they need external things, for example, addictions, to achieve some pleasure.”
Addictive behaviour is more noticeable among tweens and teens, since they have more autonomy and access to things like drugs, porn and alcohol… Peer pressure also plays a part.
Next comes the psychological part and this includes people who are prone to depression, mental or psychological disorders and tend to cope with it in unhealthy ways. This could potentially lead to addiction.
“The social part of it is being exposed or growing up in a household where your parents are addicts,” Ong explains. “If you’re used to that environment, you’re more susceptible to using substances as well or addiction in general.”
Why addiction becomes more obvious in the teen years
A good mix of teenagers and adults come through Cabin Singapore’s doors, Ong says. Her youngest client to date has been a 16-year-old with a food addiction. She has also worked with 17- to 20-year-olds who are gaming addicts, as well as those who have abused drugs and alcohol.
Right now, an issue Ong has noticed in her young school-going clients ― especially the ones attending international schools ― is an addiction to prescription drugs. “They are exaggerating symptoms to get more medication and you see the kids going to the nurse a lot more than required to get their medication during school.”
Addictive behaviour is more noticeable among tweens and teens, since they have more autonomy and access to things like drugs, porn and alcohol. At that age, they also tend to be bolder and more experimental than adults. Peer pressure also plays a part, Vinti notes.
However, sometimes you can also spot an addictive personality in someone from a much younger age that can indicate that he or she is more likely to grow up to become addicts.
“An addictive personality refers to a set of personality traits that make an individual predisposed to developing addictions,” explains Vinti.
Here are the top five signs indicating that your child is more vulnerable to addiction in the future. Being aware means that you’re able to seek help for your offspring earlier, so as to manage the issue before it becomes all consuming.
#1 Family history of addiction
If you look at people with a family history of alcoholism, gambling or drugs it can always be traced back to grandparents, great grandparents, uncles or aunts. “If addiction is in your family, there’s a 40 to 60 per cent chance that it can manifest in your child,” says Ong. So, what do you do if you’re a parent and a recovering addict?
Step up and talk about it. “The problem can be talked about from as young as 5 years old,” says Ong. You don’t have to talk about the addiction itself but more about the problematic behaviour within the family and what mummy and daddy are going through or have gone through. Knowing that such a situation exists within the family will educate your child on the topic of addiction, so that they can identify the signs of possible substance abuse later.
#2 Uncontrollable temperament
Restlessness, irritability and disruptiveness are telltale symptoms of a kid who is unable to control his or her urges and may resort to substances to self soothe. However, these are also the same signs of Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), notes Ong, who agrees that ADHD is being over-diagnosed all over the world, which makes it even harder to diagnose addictive behaviour in children.
By the way, parents are also to blame for fuelling this behaviour with their instant gratification responses. Shoving some candy into your kid’s mouths to regulate their mood, letting them play a few video games or distracting them with the TV, iPad or smartphone are all bad habits that don’t help kids to process their emotions. Instead, it teaches them to seek external activities or substances to them make themselves better.
In other words, you are essentially encouraging your child’s addictive behaviour. “When you give your child a smartphone to distract them when they scream or cry, they’re learning from a young age that when they have a difficult feeling or when they’re not feeling okay, all they have to do is put a screen in front of them and escape it,” points out Ong.
#3 Depression and anxiety
Some 95 per cent of Ong’s clients have depression or anxiety or both. “It’s part of the package,” she says. “With depression and anxiety, there’s a lot of dysregulation of emotions, so they are constantly seeking something to make them feel better.” People with depression or anxiety are usually sitting on a lot of things that haven’t been processed, such as growing up in a dysfunctional family or being exposed to childhood trauma.
“Parents who sit in front of me with a problem say that their kids are too young and don’t know anything. But kids pick up everything ― when parents fight, parents cry, parents scream. Kids are very sensitive,” Ong notes.
Childhood trauma can be anything from abuse to neglect and parents who send a very negative message that their child is not good enough, is stupid, or that they are the root of all the family problems.
#4 Childhood trauma
“Trauma is a very big part of addiction,” says Ong. “I always tell my clients, if you guys are here, chances are you’ve had adverse childhood experiences.” Childhood trauma can be anything from abuse to neglect and parents who send a very negative message that their child is not good enough, is stupid, or that they are the root of all the family problems.
How the child is parented affects how they cope with their emotions and it’s usually a painful place to go to, which is why they suppress it and rely on substances or unhealthy habits to help numb their pain. “They may have blocked it out of their mind, but they still carry it in their body,” adds Ong. And they can do so for years, which is also known as carrying on the legacy of trauma.
So, if you don’t process whatever your parents pass on to you, you will pass it on to your child. “If your child doesn’t process it, they will pass it on to their child and that’s what we call the trauma legacy,” says Ong. “You live the trauma and you pass it on. A lot of work that we do is to break that.”
#5 Not being able to make a connection with others
“Addicts often isolate themselves socially, so as to enable them to mask their addictive personality,” notes Vinti. Keeping to themselves is also an easier way for addicts to not have to open up about themselves should they be nursing personal trauma. However, it’s also this inability to make a connection with others that drives addicts to find one with drugs, alcohol or gaming.
Ong explains, “It’s not so much that the substances are addictive. It’s that addicts have a dysfunctional relationship with substances or processes. It’s also not the quantity, but the quality of the relationship you have with the substance.”
Addiction is a disease, just like diabetes. So, just like how you don’t tell someone to stop having diabetes, you can’t ask an addict to stop being one and think the problem resolve on its own. It doesn’t give the person who is suffering a lot of options and they’ll feel even more isolated, which will exacerbate the problem.
Ong advises, “In Singapore, there’s still a lot of taboo around mental health and getting professional help. So, it’s important to not be afraid to ask for professional help.”
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