In 1985, in memory of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who lost his life in the fight against illegal drugs, people across the country came together for a common purpose: to keep our kids drug-free. That was the beginning of the first Nationwide Red Ribbon Campaign, organized by what’s now called the National Family Partnership. Three decades later, the annual observance continues to shine a national spotlight on the importance of keeping our kids off drugs. As any parent can tell you, it’s a daunting, scary, but vital task. No wonder we so often resort to scare tactics and negative messages. But the truth is, adolescents respond much better to positivity. And—let’s face it—they also tend to have a what’s-in-it-for-me-right-now attitude.
That’s why I was so pleased to see that this year’s Red Ribbon theme is “Love Yourself. Be Drug Free.” Created by seventh-grader Alexa Dougherty of Orange County, New York, the theme gets at the crux of the positive message we try to convey to our teenage clients. When you talk to your kids about substance abuse, I hope you’ll share these five ways that being drug-free will allow them to love themselves:
- You learn to love the real you.
Parents often note that when a child is using drugs and alcohol, it feels like that child has become an entirely different person. In essence, this is true. Maintaining an addiction forces people to develop a specific set of skills that allows them to acquire and use drugs without being detected. Unfortunately, over time, living this way becomes the new “normal,” and the connection to the person’s true self is lost.
One of the most effective ways for kids in this situation to learn to love themselves is to help them reconnect with the best of who they were—and one way to keep kids off drugs in the first place is to make sure they understand that they have genuine strengths and positive qualities that make them who they are. There is an amazing, talented person inside everyone. Sobriety allows a teen to get to know and love that person.
- You learn to love your body.
Drug and alcohol use does significant damage to the body—from weakening the immune system to destroying the body’s vital organs. Fortunately, sobriety allows people in recovery to rebuild and strengthen the very same physical structures that they were damaging on a daily basis. Daily physical exercise—whether in the form of a structured recreational activity or a family trip to the ice skating rink—can help teens learn to love the body they used to abuse.
- You learn to love your brain.
The only thing drugs damage more significantly than the body is the brain, a wonderfully responsive structure that actually changes physically based on an individual’s experience. In the case of addiction, the brain is dramatically impaired due to being hit by a chemical sledgehammer day after day. People in early recovery often comment on how their mind is working in ways they didn’t believe possible: They feel more alert, can remember things more clearly, and are more successful at managing their emotions. Young people in recovery will remark that they suddenly feel more mature than their peers who are still using. This is true because sobriety allows for the brain to develop as it should.
- You learn to love your life.
Ask your teen about her goals and dreams. What kind of a life does she see for herself? Help her understand how using drugs, sooner or later, would derail those dreams. Make sure she knows that most people who abuse drugs and alcohol are forced to live a life that they never would have chosen for themselves.
Sober people can set goals and apply their efforts to building a life that they will love living. Keep an eye on what your child naturally gravitates toward and incorporate that when helping her build a plan for continued success. What is her favorite subject in school? What does she do outside of class that makes her happy—music, sports, art? Praise achievements both big and small—and all the things your teen does every day that add up to a life she will enjoy and be proud of.
- You learn to love others.
Love is a difficult topic for those in active addiction. While they may cite romantic or family relationships as evidence that they have love in their lives, the reality is that these relationships are often destroyed by the constant need to support their habit. People with an addiction often lie, steal, or manipulate others in order to obtain various types of support, leaving loved ones feeling used and resentful.
Through sobriety, people who have struggled with addiction learn what a true loving relationship can be. Instead of seeing loved ones as potential supporters of their habits, they are free to be authentic with friends and family. This allows for honest and open communication—the building blocks of a genuine loving relationship. Without the constant need to manipulate others in an effort to maintain a drug habit, people in sobriety can invest in the people they love, and finally receive and experience love in return.
Of course, you don’t have to wait until your kids turn to drugs or alcohol to get them to realize all this. Starting when they are very young, keep the lines of communication open, listen when they talk, and let them know you understand their feelings and value them for who they are. Chances are, if you model a loving, secure, and reciprocal relationship, they’ll be capable of having such relationships, too.
Director, Hill A. Feinberg Academy
Phoenix House Texas
Blog Editor’s Note: Our Hill A. Feinberg Academy in Dallas, Texas, recently developed and implemented a new model of treatment for adolescents. Called I CAN, it focuses on using each client’s individual strengths to fight addiction and forge a positive path forward—a key component of this year’s Red Ribbon theme.Back to Index