The Causes Of Drug Addiction In Pre-adolescent Teens

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In this paper, it is my intent to discover and find possible variables that would contribute to understand the enigmatic problem of substance abuse in children aged fourteen and under. It is apparent with every new generation that comes forth, that there are certain stressors and challenges that are unique with each revolving generation than the one before it. Generation Z is our youngest generation but is most apt when it comes to multitasking and interfacing with a computer. Aside from Generation Z’s skills, these group of youngsters also happen to be the loneliest and most socially inept when compared to all preceding generations.

There are, of course, additional factors that can be introduced into a pre-adolescent’s life that could easily shake their already weakened social constitutions. There are factors such as the availability of drugs in the community, neighborhood, and school and whether the adolescent’s friends are using them. The family environment is also important: Violence, physical or emotional abuse, mental illness, or drug use in the household increases the likelihood an adolescent will use drugs. Finally, an adolescent’s inherited genetic vulnerability is something to be seriously considered, such as: personality traits like poor impulse control or a high need for excitement; mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD; and beliefs such as that drugs are “cool” or harmless make it more likely that an adolescent will use drugs (Mause 79)

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The pre-teen and teen years are a critical window of vulnerability to substance abuse disorders, because the brain is still developing and malleable (a property known as neuroplasticity), and some brain areas are less mature than others. The parts of the brain that process feelings of reward and pain – crucial motivators of drug use – are the first to mature during childhood. What remains incompletely developed during the teen years are the prefrontal cortex and its connections to other brain regions. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for assessing situations, making sound decisions, and controlling our emotions and impulses. Typically, this circuitry is not mature until a person is in his or her mid – 20s (Lynch 136-37).

The pre-adolescent can be likened to a car with an exceptionally functioning gas pedal (the reward center), but weak brakes (the prefrontal cortex). Pre-teenagers, as well as teenagers, are highly motivated to pursue pleasurable rewards, but their judgement and decision-making skills, over time, become very limited. This affects their ability to weigh risks accurately and make sound decisions, including decisions about using drugs. For these reasons, adolescents are a major target for prevention messages promoting healthy, drug-free behavior and giving young people encouragement and skills to avoid the temptations of experimenting with drugs.

Most pre-teen and teens do not escalate from trying drugs to developing an addiction or other substance use disorder. However, even experimenting with drugs can be a problem. Drug use can be part of a pattern of risky behavior including unsafe sex, driving while intoxicated, or other hazardous, unsupervised activities. And in cases when a teen does develop a pattern of repeated use, it can pose serious social risks as well as health risks, including:

  • School failure
  • Problems with family and other relationships
  • Loss of interest in normal healthy activity
  • Impaired memory
  • Increased chance of contracting an infectious disease
  • Mental health problems
  • The very real risk of overdose and death

Different drugs can affect the brain in a variety of ways, but a common factor is that they all raise the level of the chemical dopamine in brain circuits that control reward and pleasure. The brain is hard-wired to encourage life-sustaining and healthy activities through the release of dopamine. Everyday rewards during pre-adolescence – such as hanging out with friends, listening to music, playing sports, and all the other highly motivating experiences for teenagers, cause the release of this chemical in moderate amounts. This reinforces behaviors that contribute to learning, health, well-being, and the strengthening of social bonds (Darke and Torok 610-16).

Drugs, unfortunately, are able to hijack this natural process. The “high” produced by drugs represents a flooding of the brain’s reward circuits with much more dopamine than what is naturally produced by the brain. This creates an especially strong drive to repeat the experience. The immature brain, already struggling between balancing impulsivity and self-control, is more likely to take drugs again without adequately considering the consequences. If the experience is repeated, the brain reinforces the neural links between pleasure and drug taking, making the association stronger and stronger. Soon, taking the drug may assume an importance in the pre-teen’s life which is out of proportion to other rewards (Kraplin 1721-23).

The development of addiction is run like a vicious cycle: Chronic drug use not only realigns a person’s priorities, but also may alter key brain areas necessary for judgement and self-control., further reducing the individual’s ability to control or stop their drug intake. This is why, despite popular belief, willpower alone is often insufficient to overcome an addiction. Drug use in the pre-teens brain has compromised the very parts of the brain that make it possible to “say no.” Not all young people are equally at risk for developing an addiction. Various factors including inherited genetic predispositions and adverse circumstances in early life make trying drugs and developing a substance abuse disorder more likely. Chronic exposure to stress in childhood primes the brain to be sensitive to stress and to seek relief from it throughout life. This greatly increases the likelihood of subsequent drug abuse and of starting drug use early. In fact, there are certain traits that put a person at risk for drug use, such as being impulsive or aggressive, that manifest well before the first episode of drug use, and may be addressed by prevention interventions during childhood. By the same token, a range of factors, such as parenting that is nurturing or a healthy school environment, may encourage healthy development and lessen the risk of later drug use (Whitfield 269-92).

Drug use at an early age is an important predictor of development of a substance abuse disorder later. The majority of those who have a substance use disorder started using well before the age of eighteen and matured their disorder by the time they hit twenty. The likelihood of developing a substance use disorder is greatest for those who begin use in pre-adolescence or the teen years. For example, 15.2 percent of people who started drinking before the age of fourteen eventually develop alcohol abuse or dependence, and 25 percent of those who begin abusing prescription drugs at age thirteen or younger develop a substance use disorder at some time in their lives. Tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana are the first addictive substances most people try initially. Data collected in 2012 found that nearly 13 percent of those with a substance use disorder began using marijuana before they reached the age of fourteen, and not many years after (Whitfield 269-92).

When substance use disorders occur in pre-adolescence, or in the early teen years, they affect key developmental and social transactions, and they can interfere with normal brain maturation. These potentially lifelong consequences make addressing adolescent drug use an extremely important matter. Chronic marijuana use in pre-adolescence and adolescence, for example, has been shown to lead to a loss of I.Q. that is not recovered even if the individual quits using in adulthood. Impaired memory or thinking ability and other problems caused by drug use can derail a young person’s social and educational development and hold him or her back in life (Whitfield 269-92)

The serious health risks of drugs compound the need to get an adolescent who is abusing drugs into treatment as soon as possible. Also, pre-teens who are abusing drugs are likely to have other issues such as mental health problems accompanying and possibly contributing to their substance use, and these also need to be addressed. Unfortunately, less than one third of pre-adolescents admitted to substance abuse treatment who have other mental health issues receive any care for their conditions (Elmer 563-64).

In this section of my study, I will be focusing more on the pathologies and traumas that basically cleared a path for at risk youth in developing an addiction.

Complex trauma is a term used by some experts to describe both exposure to chronic trauma – usually caused by adults entrusted with the child’s care, such as parents and caregivers – and the impact of such exposure on the person. Children and adolescents who have experienced complex trauma have endured multiple traumatic events (such as physical and sexual abuse) from a very young age (Weiss 27-55).

When trauma is associated with the failure of those who should be caring for a child, it has profound effects on nearly every aspect of the child’s development and functioning. Children and adolescents who have experienced complex trauma often display a range of social, developmental, and physical impairments, such as:

  • Social isolation and difficulty relating to and empathizing with others
  • Unexplained physical symptoms and increased medical problems
  • Difficulty in regulating emotion and knowing and describing their feelings and internal states.
  • Poor impulse control, self-destructive behavior, and aggression
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Disturbed body image Low self-esteem, shame, and guilt

In some cases, traumatic stress reaches the level of clinically defined posttraumatic stress disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD is characterized by episodes of reexperiencing the trauma. Numerous surveys have shown that children and adolescents who have experienced trauma are at particularly high risk at developing PTSD. They may report ongoing fear that the event will occur again, persistent flashbacks and nightmares, avoidance of things that remind them of the event, being on edge all the time, and trouble sleeping (Lynch 136-37).

Children and adolescents in the United States are routinely exposed to a wide range of potentially traumatic events. According to the National Survey of Adolescents,

  • Four out of 10 adolescents have witnessed violence
  • Seventeen percent have been physically assaulted
  • Eight percent have experienced sexual assault

Adolescents turn to several potentially destructive behaviors in an effort to avoid or defuse the intense negative emotions that accompany traumatic stress, which includes compulsive sexual behavior, self-mutilation, bingeing and purging, and even attempted suicide. But, arguably the most maladaptive coping mechanism among traumatized pre-adolescents/adolescents is the abuse of alcohol and drugs (Weiss 27-51).

Reported rates of substance abuse following trauma exposure range from 25% to 76%, and research has shown that more than half of young people with PTSD subsequently develop substance abuse problems. A history of childhood sexual physical abuse has also been associated with the development and severity of alcohol disorders. The presence of traumatic stress or PTSD greatly complicates the recovery process in children and adolescents with substance use disorders. In addition to the physically and psychologically addicting effects of alcohol and drugs, children and adolescents with co-occurring traumatic stress must deal with the painful visions of their past traumas as well. For example, exposure to traumatic reminders has been shown to increase drug cravings in people with co-occurring trauma and substance abuse issues (Ullman 19-36).

In this section of my research paper, I will delve a little deeper in the very worst of all abuses imaginable – the sexual abuse of a child.

Rough estimates are that one in three girls and one in seven boys will experience at least one episode of molestation by the time they reach age eighteen. One in ten of those will be victims of ongoing sexual abuse. Between 70 % and 90% of all cases of sexual abuse are perpetrated by family members, trusted friends, youth leaders, or caregivers. Sexual abuse thrives in an atmosphere of secrecy and shame, and the majority of victims, unfortunately, are never reported.

More often than not, most survivors of child sexual abuse have a really hard time accepting and believing in a God who loves. Not only are they filled with shame and self-hatred, they often verbalize the question, “Why does God hate me? “In addition to that statement, many survivors of sexual abuse share a fear of being tormented in hell. They believe the abuse they suffered was proof that they are such horrible people, they are deserving of severe punishment, both in this world and the next. They also believe that, no matter how much they hated what was happening to them, no matter how much they tried to avoid it, they were somehow complicit in the sexual acts that were visited upon them (Ganje-Fling et al 84-91).

Despite the initial spiritual angst that many survivors of child sexual abuse experience, there is research that has shown a beneficial increase in spirituality in response to sexual abuse. Aspects of spirituality found to be helpful to women who experienced sexual violence include religious and Church support, the belief in God’s help, hope and spiritual encouragement. Though less studied, aspects of spirituality found to be helpful for male survivors of sexual abuse include connecting to God individually and private and group prayer. Typically, the first step of spiritual communion for these survivors is found in the sharing and exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings. The word ‘communion’ is used to illustrate the participant’s experiences of spiritual connection through intimate, heart-felt communication with God – often through prayer. Another characteristic of spiritual connection is the ‘numinous Presence’, or a divine, supernatural spirit that is felt to be present. Many believed this Presence had been life altering and was experienced as a blessing or as received grace. The grace often received turned out to be the required spiritual fortitude to forgive any past abuser that victimized the survivor from many years earlier (Ganje-Fling 84-91).

The problem of suffering is a multifaceted one. It has moral, physical, philosophical, psychological, and theological dimensions. Suffering is said to be a moral problem by some because some believe that it occurs as a result of some sin against God. Physically, we experience unpleasant things as human beings, thus we suffer. Philosophically, the problem of suffering gives a rational explanation to the existence of God and suffering in the world – an ontological combination, if you will. Despite hundreds of works and writings offered to us by leading theologians, past and present, we really are no further in the completion of this theological conundrum. Despite all the intellectual ramblings in an attempt to put this great question to rest, it isn’t our thinking that is at the very root of the problem. For many people, the problem of suffering and pain is not really an intellectual problem – it is an emotional problem (Chartier 110-27).The emotional problem of suffering concerns itself on how to comfort those who are suffering and how to dissolve the emotional dislike of a God who would permit such sufferings. Christian theology has many resources to deal with the problem of suffering. It teaches that God is not a distant Creator or impersonal. On the contrary, God is a loving and nurturing Father who takes upon Himself all of our sufferings and pains. Let me repeat that – He suffers with us. Of all the individuals that I know, there is no one who has been more affronted and disrespected than the Lord Himself. God wrestles with our sufferings – He cares when we suffer. God’s wrestling with our suffering is embedded in the suffering Christ endured which is beyond all human understanding. He bore the punishment of the sins for the whole world. Though He was innocent, He voluntarily underwent incomprehensible suffering for us (Gould 460-64).

In this last and final section, I’d like to share my own experience, having suffered abuse as a child, as well as starting an addiction to pills (hydrocodone) when I was about twelve years old. Of any family that I have known or became acquainted with, no family was more dysfunctional than mine was. Ever since I can remember, there was always yelling and arguing between my father and my mother on a daily basis. I never had any sense of security while growing up, which engendered a rather fatalistic attitude in me even at such a young age. My two older brothers had left for college by the time that my life began to spiral out of control. My mother’s verbal assaults against me were constant. There was absolutely nothing I could do to please her. About this time in my life, I recall needing to speak to my father, but he was in his bed asleep. However, I was persistent, and he got up. He went to the far wall of his bedroom and picked up his short-barreled shotgun. He pointed the gun at me and started to jab the end of the barrel into my ribs. I was twelve years old. What did I do to deserve that? My mother called the police, but my father left the house before the police arrived. Over the course of my life I’ve often wondered where was God that night? As the years unfolded, so did the answers. I honestly believe that if I never had these trials, or experienced the heartache and tragedy of addiction, I would have never seen my need for Jesus. My brothers had it a bit easier. They both went to college right after high school, and both married shortly thereafter. As for me, I got married to Haldol and spent my honeymoon in Brentwood State Hospital. I have lived in shame for a large portion of my life. That no longer has to be the case because God uses His power and love to redeem all the pains, the agonies, missed opportunities, and sins for our good and for His glory. I believe one of the reasons God called me into the ministry, or, more specifically, the counseling field, is that I possess knowledge and wisdom that cannot be attained from a book, or in a classroom. The years of shame and guilt are finally closing because I’m really beginning to see through the Lord’s perspective on this whole matter. Not an ounce, or even a pound of pain from my past will escape it’s use in the potential healing and redemption of another life that is just waiting to be set free.


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