Jessica Lahey on Protecting Teens & Preventing Substance Use

    New York Times best-selling author Jessica Lahey joins host Elizabeth Vargas to discuss her latest book, The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence. The pair connects over the advantages and challenges that come with being a parent in recovery, the benefits of family dinners (even with teens!) and why young people are more susceptible to addiction.

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    If you’re unable to listen, check out the transcript of Jessica’s conversation with Elizabeth below.

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    Episode transcipt

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Hello everybody, and welcome to Heart of the Matter. I’m your host Elizabeth Vargas. And as many of you may know, I’ve talked about the fact that I have two kids, two teenage boys, and as the parent of any teenager will tell you, we’re constantly wondering what we’re doing wrong, and how we can do it better, and if we’re doing anything right. We know that in the pandemic, and even in the last couple of years leading up to the pandemic, we were having a real epidemic in this country of anxiety and depression in our teenagers. In fact, teenagers are more likely to be depressed and anxious than any other age group in America. It’s pretty extraordinary. And many, many teenagers, like adults, turn to substances, to drugs and alcohol, to self-medicate.

    In fact, most teenagers who develop a substance use disorder are doing so because they’re trying to manage their anxiety, manage their depression. Not because they want to go get high or have fun, which is kind of a surprising statistic that I found out.

    But anyway, my guest today is Jessica Lahey. She’s a New York Times bestselling author. She is a teacher, and she is also the mom of two boys. And she answers all these questions and more in her new book, The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence. Reading this book was a real eye-opener for me. I did not know, for example, that only 57% of schools have some sort of drug or alcohol abuse program. And that of that number, only 10% of them are evidence-based, which means, hardly any of our kids are getting the information they need at school to help them deal with drugs and alcohol.

    So I was really excited to talk to Jessica. She is not just all those things, author, teacher, and best-selling author of a previous book, she is also in recovery herself. So please welcome my guest today, Jessica Lahey.

    Jessica Lahey, welcome, it’s so great to have you.

    Jessica Lahey

    Thank you so, so much for having me. I’m so happy to be here.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I’m so happy to have you here. Your book, The Addiction Inoculation, is absolutely amazing. And I read it with several hats on. I was reading it as a journalist and as a member of the board of directors for Partnership to End Addiction on what we can do to help kids. I read it though, also as the mom of two teenage boys on like, “Oh no, I screwed that up,” and, “Oh, wait, I’m doing that okay.”

    Jessica Lahey

    Welcome to my world.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And I read it as a daughter and somebody in recovery. And by the way, thanks for the very first chapter of your book, because I really related to your journey. I mean, the fact that we both started drinking… We actually are, we buck the odds here. All the research shows that, what eight out of 10 or nine out of 10 people go on to later on develop some sort of addiction, start using a substance when they’re an adolescent, and neither you nor I did that. We both started drinking later.

    Jessica Lahey

    Right nine out of 10, absolutely. And mine is a story that I don’t hear as often, which I think is another really important reason to do is to talk about it. I will tell you that I belong to a lot of Facebook groups for people in recovery or I belong to one in particular, that’s a closed secret, and it’s really mothers struggling with substance abuse. And there are a lot of us in there who started late, who started after kids, and where it just, no matter how careful I was, it’s still snuck up on me, which was disconcerting to say the least. Especially since my husband and I both knew to keep an eye out, and yet it just snuck up on me, but that happens to the best of us.

    And I just hope, moving forward, that when you say the thing about how you read it as a mother and, “oh my gosh, it’s too late, blah, blah, blah,” I have a 22 year old now and a 17 year old, and I’ve changed the way I do things in my house. So there’s differences in the way I’m raising my 17 year old over the way I rose my… rose, raised my 22 year old. So we just do the best we can with the evidence we have at hand, and that’s all I can never ask from my kids. So I just sort of hope I’m modeling that response for them as well.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I think, when you talk about that Facebook group, we know that all the research shows, there’s an incredible connection for women between anxiety and addiction, and that so many women, myself included, started drinking because I figured out in my 20s, oh, “Hey, this works, this helps take the edge completely off.” And yet I was amazed to read this statistic, I don’t know how I hadn’t read this before, from your book, in the chapter “Not my kid,” that the most stressed out people in this country are adolescents between the ages of 15 and 21.

    Jessica Lahey

    So I was actually on a call just the other day with someone who was telling me about some research that their organization has just done, and I’m not going to mention them simply, because I’m not a 100% sure that everything about it is public, but she was mentioning that as unsurprised as they were to find out that the degree to which parents are concerned for adolescents mental health, that the adolescents themselves were even more concerned than their parents were. And this is specific to COVID. And that, to me, was really interesting to hear.

    Not only because we tend to think of adolescence as being clueless to sort of their mental state, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. But that understanding that they’re even more worried than we are about their mental health going through all of this really was poignant for me. And a big eye-opening moment, because I think that a lot of them are trying to take that in hand any way they know how. And if you… the chapter in the book on Georgia, which is really about education. And I’m so grateful by the way, to Georgia and Brian, those are their real names. Georgia and Brian felt it was very important that they, now adults, tell their story, because they claim that all the hell they’ve been through with their own substance abuse will be worth it, if they can help other kids.

    So Georgia talked about the fact that when she first heard that you could quiet anxiety with alcohol, she was like, “Oh, I’m all in.” And by the time I became her teacher in high school, she was drinking every day just for that reason specifically.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Wow. No, there are all sorts of surveys that indicate that kids aren’t using drugs or alcohol, largely because of peer pressure, but even because they want to get high so much as, as a way to manage their own stress and anxiety. And I think a lot of parents and a lot of adults would be really shocked to hear that, even though that’s certainly why I used alcohol, to manage stress and anxiety.

    Jessica Lahey

    And that drinking pattern, as opposed to, and this is in the chapter on college, that drinking pattern to manage anxiety, depression, whatever, is more troubling than people who are going out and drinking at their frat party, because they just want to get high or drunk with their friends. People who drink in order to self-medicate things they don’t want to feel or things that they’re feeling, that’s more problematic, in terms of as a predictor of later problems.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Of later problems. So what do we do? I mean, I was struck by the fact that your book is called The Addiction Inoculation. And of course, that immediately conjures up thoughts of, I can go get a shot and I never have-

    Jessica Lahey

    Right, right.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    … to worry about it again. That’s not the case. There isn’t a simple one solution to raising [crosstalk 00:08:14]-

    Jessica Lahey

    Right. There isn’t, but the reason that word is there is because of inoculation theory. And inoculation theory is really fascinating. And the idea is that with inoculation theory, let’s say, you have a kid who you know is probably at some point going to here, “Oh, come on, just, just have one puff or one drink or whatever, it’s no big deal. Everybody’s doing it.” If your child knows they have the rebuttal to that, if they don’t want to do it, and they have the rebuttal to it, for example, “Okay, I’m in eighth grade, and I happen to know that not everyone is doing it, because I know, because my parents told me that based on the numbers out only a quarter of kids in eighth grade admit that they’ve had more than a sip of alcohol by the end of eighth grade.”

    That knowing that I have, if I’m the kid, I have that rebuttal that sort of gives me a sense of empowerment, a sense of self-efficacy. The reason it’s called inoculation theory is, it’s sort of like, if you know that you’ve been shown a fake version of the thing you might hear, and you have a response to it, that when the real thing comes down the pike, that you will have a response to that. You will have a strong-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    So what does that mean? You rehearse it? You game play it? I mean, what do you do?

    Jessica Lahey

    You can rehearse it. You can gameplay it. It really depends on your kid. I mean, some kids are going to be more game for certain things than others. My kids, if I were to suggest that we gave we role play something, at this point, there’s no possible way I’m going to get my kid-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Mine either.

    Jessica Lahey

    But I can have conversations about those things, like, “Here are the most commonly heard…” Or if I ask them, every once in a while it comes up in conversation, “What might you hear about vaping? Drinking? Alcohol?” Whatever, but the idea with inoculation theory is that we could have a really strong response, and the ability to respond to sort of the real thing when it comes along.

    The other cool thing about inoculation theory that is just so encouraging to me, is that, not only does a kid feel empowered, and feel like they have self-efficacy, and they have this refusal skill, they not only feel more empowered about it, they are more likely to use it when it actually happens. They’re more likely to talk to us about it. The communication tends to be better, and here’s the most amazing part for me, it generalizes.

    So when you use inoculation theory to help protect kids against high risk behaviors, whether that’s sex before they’re ready, drinking, the kid who wants to jump off the garage into the pool, because their friends think it would be a really cool idea, any kind of sort of high-risk behaviors. It actually will help protect against other ones as well. So it’s a really cool practice that when I learned about it, I’m like, “Well, that has to be an important part of this.” And I’m married to an infectious diseases physician, so these metaphors come up all the time in our house. So it was really handy for me that it worked out that way.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    So you wrote a whole book about it, which goes into great detail, but if you had to summarize, like in a bullet point fashion, inoculation theory, what would it be?

    Jessica Lahey

    Giving kids refusal skills, empowers them, and empowerment and self-efficacy is in and of itself a protective factor, a protection against all sorts of risky behaviors, particularly, substance abuse.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And how do you implement it? I mean, I was struck repeatedly by the fact that your book, and I know that one of the recommendations that the Partnership gives out, is that one of the single most important things we can do as parents is have a family dinner. Just sit around-

    Jessica Lahey

    So family-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    … and I’m constantly on my kids about that, phones off, sit down, I’ll work my butt off trying to make conversation with two truculent teenagers, but I do it because I feel like it’s really important.

    Jessica Lahey

    Well, and I love the original research. I love Joseph Califano’s words about dinner, and how important dinner is, and how it’s a dose dependent relationship, the more dinners we have, the more protective it is. The one thing I want to do with this book, though, is help empower parents, make parents feel like they’re empowered, because they have decision-making capability, because they have some feelings of control. So I don’t want to say, “Okay, well now you’ve got to add in family dinner every single night. And this is a new obligation that you have to do, if you haven’t already been doing it.” Because I think family dinner is emblematic of something bigger, which is a period of a regular scheduled tradition of open communication in your family, where you talk about stuff, where you have the opportunity to sit with each other, a check-in, so that if kids are going off the rails, if something changes in their life, you’re going to notice that. It really has to do with this touch point in your family of coming together and communicating.

    That doesn’t have to be dinner. It could be, for a kid who is traveling a lot for a sport, and family dinners are difficult, those car rides are really, really important, and making sure that those car rides are a part of regular communication. So yes, absolutely, the ideal is family dinner together, it’s a nourishing in so many ways. But I also don’t want parents to feel like, well, if that’s an impossibility in my house, then it’s over-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right. Right.

    Jessica Lahey

    … I work two jobs. I can’t possibly do that. How am I going to now manage? And for those parents, I want to make it clear that this is not exclusive to the actual act of sitting down at dinner together.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right. The other thing you make clear is that these conversations open communication and specifically conversations about drugs and alcohol. I mean, first of all, how does a parent… what’s the best way to approach that conversation? I mean, you say the wrong way is definitely, “Whatever you do don’t ever drink or do drugs,” that the scare tactics do not work.

    Jessica Lahey

    We know for a fact, the scare tactics, and we know for a fact, the “Just say no,” it doesn’t work. We know that some of those programs early on that employed that tactic, not only did it not work, it made some kids more likely to try drugs and alcohol. What does work is communication about it from a very, very early age. And that’s why in the book… When I wrote “Gift of Failure” and I was out on the road doing a lot of talking about “Gift of Failure,” what parents would say to me over and over again is, “No, no, no, no. Tell me exactly what to say. Exactly what to say.”

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Where’s the script?

    Jessica Lahey

    Right, exactly. So there’s lots of scripts in this book and they start really young. That’s both because it’s just easier the more we talk about it, and because really-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    You were saying, preschool.

    Jessica Lahey

    Yeah. But you’re not-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Preschool?

    Jessica Lahey

    Yes, but you’re not talking about crystal methamphetamine. What you’re talking about is, you have a preschooler and you’re sitting there and you’re brushing your teeth together and you say, “Why do you think it is that we spit out the toothpaste? Why don’t we swallow it? Wouldn’t that be better for us. We’d get more fluoride in us.” Or, “Here’s why we wash our hands.” “Here’s why we don’t put Tide pods in our mouth.” But part of those conversation can also be about things like, “Sweetie, you’re learning your letters and let’s pick up this prescription bottle here that’s for mommy’s medication. Can you find the letters of mommy’s name on this medication? And why do you think mommy’s name is on this medication? And what if you needed the same medication? Could you just take the stuff that’s out of the bottle that has my medication in it? Why or why not? Why couldn’t…”

    All these conversations about, what are at a very basic level about, what we put in our bodies and what we don’t put in our bodies, and parameters around things that might seem okay, but are not, because of all these reasons that kids couldn’t possibly know about like body weight and body chemistry and things like that. So that when you get to the point where you’re actually talking about the fact that, most kids, if they’re going to get hooked on pain meds, on opiates, are going to get those out of someone’s medicine cabinet. And here’s why it’s so important that you don’t take medications that are prescribed for other people.

    Those conversations start at a very young age, and the more we have them, the easier they are to have. I had this conversation with Peggy Orenstein, who’s written two wonderful books, “Boys & Sex” and “Girls & Sex,” about how to make really difficult conversations easier. And honestly, it’s through repetition. It’s through normalizing these conversations. Most parents know that kids get their first dose of opiates out of someone’s medicine cabinet, or from someone who got them out of someone’s medicine cabinet, but only 10% of parents admit that they’ve had any kind of conversation about that.

    And what’s funny about this is just a few weeks ago, or a few months ago, my son was in biology class and the teacher was doing a poll of the class. And he said, “Raise your hand, if your parents ever talked to you about drugs and alcohol.” And my son just laughed, and he said, “When does she not talk to us about drugs and alcohol?” But the reality is, my kids came into the world with a higher risk level, a higher risk for substance use disorder. And I can’t not talk about it. I do not have that luxury. And I don’t know that many of us do. So, given that that’s a conversation we have to have, normalize it from a very early age.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    When you referenced that genetic predisposition it’s because you are an alcoholic-

    Jessica Lahey

    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Elizabeth Vargas

    .. and the disease runs in your family, correct?

    Jessica Lahey

    Yes. Yeah. As far back as… And in my husband’s side of the family as well, so-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    So both sides.

    Jessica Lahey

    … we get it double-barreled. My maternal and paternal side, my husband’s maternal and paternal side, so we’ve got it. According to Mark Schuckit at USC, that’s about 50 to 60% of the risk picture. There’s this, I keep saying this, horrific yet completely appropriate analogy, which is that genetics is the bullet that you put into the gun, and then trauma is the trigger. So for a lot of kids, they could be loaded up with this genetic predisposition, and if they’re fortunate enough, privileged enough to not have trauma in their early life, or if they get early intervention and treatment and therapy for those things that could blow up to be emotions that they want to numb out or not deal with. Certain traumas certainly have… For example, in girls, especially…

    And actually I have this conversation with someone just the other day. I always say this, in girls, especially, sexual abuse is a really big risk factor for substance use disorder. And I can’t imagine that that’s any different for boys. I just think there’s-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Me neither.

    Jessica Lahey

    … a lot more research. I just think there’s a lot more research on the emotional consequences of sexual abuse in girls than in boys.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    But the fact of the matter is, is what you’re describing in all of this is an open dialogue between parent and child from an early age, about all things, really, because if the research shows that most adolescents start using drugs or alcohol, because of stress and trauma, if they have another way to process that stress and trauma, someone to talk to someone to… I mean, I know that from my own recovery, that just talking about how anxious I feel, or how frightened I feel, or how insecure I feel, lightens that burden considerably. And also allows you to figure out that, hey, guess what news flash, you’re not the only one. Most people feel that way at some point.

    Jessica Lahey

    And the nice thing about this conversation is, it’s not just about the substances. For example, peer relationships are a big risk factor for substance abuse, which, for me, turned out to be a much grayer area than I originally thought it was. I thought it was, okay, the more friends your kids have that use substances, the more higher their risk. So there’s an entire chapter in the book about just how gray this area can be. But one of the things that’s been very clear to me is that modeling really strong, really healthy peer relationships for my kids is going to be incredibly important to helping them have peer relationships that are important. So for example, if your kid is getting into relationships with kids that you’re worried about, having conversations, not necessarily from the substance abuse angle, which you should be having anyway, but from the, what are you getting from this relationship?

    I notice that when you come home, you’re feeling more anxious or you’re feeling really down on yourself, what is it about your relationship with this person, that when you come home from their house, you’re feeling like this? And you better believe – I have a really close friend who, she’s also my podcast co-host, and she has been known to call ahead to functions that we’re both going to, to make sure that they’re going to be non-alcoholic options for me, just because she loves me. And that’s part of being protective of your friend. And so I have these conversations with my friends and say, “I’ve had friends in the past that would like to take me down with them. They figure if they’re going to go down, they might as well have some company, and that’s not a healthy relationship. Here’s what a healthy relationship looks like.”

    So these conversations are not always just about substance abuse. They’re about who you’re hanging out with and why? And the kind of relationships you get in, especially moving into romantic relationships. What is a strong, healthy relationship look like for someone who’s looking out for your best interest, as opposed to wanting to take you down with them?

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I’d like to take a quick break for my interview with Jessica to tell you about an amazing resource from Partnership to End Addiction. For families struggling with the child’s substance use or addiction, there is help. Partnership to End Addiction’s helpline provides families with compassionate, confidential one-on-one support. You don’t have to go through all this alone. You can connect with a qualified specialist, a real person with experience addressing all these kinds of issues. Send a text message to 55735, or visit drugfree.org/helpline to schedule an appointment.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    That leads to another observation that I got from your book, which is that I’m a control freak.

    Jessica Lahey

    Hello. So am I.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Which is also part of the reason why I drank, because I couldn’t control everything, and so… I don’t know, but you write that parents who try and exert too much control, it backfires. The best thing we can do for our kids is loosen the grip a little bit, and give them enough lead to go out and fail, going back to your first book. Going out and fail and picking yourself back up and dusting yourself off and learning that that happens, and that sometimes the most spectacular failures, then give birth and make room for the most spectacular successes.

    Jessica Lahey

    There’s another, a couple of reasons, actually, that it’s really important. It’s very much what “Gift of Failure” is about. But there’s also something to be considered, which is that a lot of kids… So when I go speak at schools, I get to do this amazing thing where I talk to the kids during the day, and I do professional development with the teachers in the afternoon, and then I talked to the parents in the evening. So I give all of the kids my email, and I say, “Email me with what it is you want me to tell your parents tonight.”

    And by far, the most common email I get is, some iteration of the idea that kids don’t feel loved for who they are. That they want me to tell their parents, “I’m not my brother. I’m not my sister. I’m not you when were my age. I’m not some imaginary version of a kid that you think you’re raising.” So understanding that kids are generally not feeling supported when they screw up, and that’s exactly when we have to support them. And when we give kids a little more autonomy, when we help them feel supported through that process of learning, when we focus more on the process and less on the end product, and help them really believe us, when we say, “What I really care about is that you’re learning from this.”

    It’s not only going to… You’re going to have a more competent kid. You’re going to have a kid who feels… Again, with the self-efficacy, again, with learning, how to self-advocate. But we also know from the research that the more tightly controlled the kid is, kids who are really tightly controlled, they are simply more deceptive. They lie to their parents more. So if we want our kids to actually be honest in their communications with us, we have to give them room to pull away from us and have their own privacy, their own stuff. And in our house, that means I have never read my kids emails. I’ve never had my kids texts, and I don’t go in their rooms, unless I’m invited in. Simply because, they need a sphere of privacy as they pull away from us. And-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Have you always done that? Or at what age did you start-

    Jessica Lahey

    Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    … doing that with them?

    Jessica Lahey

    Oh, I’ve always done that.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    You’ve always done that.

    Jessica Lahey

    I was given privacy as a child. I had diaries. I’ve been a writer my whole life. So if felt as a child that my diaries would have been read by my parents, I would have not been able to express myself. And one of my kids in particular has written since he was very, very young. And I just wanted to make sure he understood that there were places where he could express himself. And keep in mind, of course, that this is always open to change. If my kids suddenly weren’t sleeping, weren’t eating, were suddenly in some different place, and I became worried. That’s open to change.

    There’s a wonderful book by Loni Coombs, Who’s a former prosecutor called, YYou’re Perfect and Other Lies Your Parents Tell You.” She likes to use, what’s called the plain view doctrine, where if you see something or you’re highly suspicious that something may be going on, you can toss the kid’s room. But given that I’ve not had to do that, that’s that’s remained the rule. And there are unforeseen consequences that can come up.

    I had a communication a while back with some kids who shut their friend out of a group text thread, and the girl was just feeling horrible, alienated, there was some suicidal ideation going on. She was just feeling like her friends had turned their back, and we came to find out after discussing it, that what had happened was her friends didn’t want to tell her this, because they didn’t want to make her feel bad, but they knew that her mother read her texts, and they didn’t want their privacy violated. So they just took her out of the text thread. And that’s an unforeseen consequence that I don’t think we… Those are the things we don’t think about when we start treading on kids’ privacy, and not allowing them to individuate in a way that they need to during adolescents.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    What are you… I can hear the parents of teenagers all over the country saying, “Yeah, but my kid won’t talk to me.” And my youngest, for many, many years at bedtime, I would go in and we would talk for sometimes as long as 20 minutes, just the two of us. And we would talk about his day and what’s happening with his friends. I loved those sessions and now he’s 14 and a half and he won’t do that with me anymore.

    Jessica Lahey

    Mine won’t either.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And I’m sure a lot of teenagers, especially… I personally think 14 is the hardest age, and it really-

    Jessica Lahey

    14’s tough.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    … is challenging. They think they know it all. They don’t want to-

    Jessica Lahey

    It’s also often a transition between middle school and high school, which is a really precarious time for kids. Transitions are particularly precarious times for kids.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    This is the time, as I was reading your book, “The Addiction Inoculation,” I was thinking, “But he won’t do that with me anymore!” Even with dinner, it’s like pulling teeth, and then the two of them start to get into an argument about who’s the best basketball player of all time. And I’m like, “I’m trying to eat my dinner, stop yelling over me about LeBron James and Steph Curry.” So what do you do? How do you handle these conversation?

    Jessica Lahey

    So what’s interesting is, one of the other things that kids tell me a lot is that they do want to talk to their parents, they just don’t want to talk to their parents about the things their parents want to talk about on the parent’s timeline. So that’s why this whole time for dinner or on the drives or as I say in the book on the chairlift. My husband-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah. That was a big one for me.

    Jessica Lahey

    … and my boys have had their big sex conversations. We live right down the street from the Dartmouth Skiway, so we could walk there. And so to go up for a couple of runs was a fairly common thing, and that was their talking place. So I think having some patience with those conversations that you’re not particularly interested in and being present for those conversations, shows them that you’re actually listening to them, and that you’re actually interested and not, not interested in the things that they’re interested in, but that you’re interested enough in them to be invested. Years ago, my son was interested in… he was so fascinated by crystals and crystal healing, and my husband and I are both very evidence-based. My husband’s a physician, blah, blah, blah, and our choice was to say, “Well, there’s no evidence behind that. That’s ridiculous.” Or, “I don’t know anything about that, could you teach me what you know?” And that became something that we used as a talking point for a long time.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    What did you learn about your sons that you didn’t know with that game?

    Jessica Lahey

    I learnt things about personality traits that they felt were dominant in them that I tend not to see as their parents. Things that they show to the world outside of this house that I wasn’t aware of. Things that are important to them that I’ve realized I thought was just a little thing they would toss out every once in a while. Sometimes teens will, well, kids, will toss something out that they’re sampling with you. They don’t necessarily want you to know the whole story, but they’ll toss it out to see your response. And if you don’t really pay attention or you just sort of skim over it, they’re like, “Ah, well, the parent’s not that interested in it.”

    But through this, I found out that this was something really important to them. And obviously, I didn’t give their answers to the questions, because we have a very honed relationship about what I’m allowed to tell and what I’m not allowed to tell, and that’s part of our family’s sort of personal stuff. But I found out a lot about what my kids are interested in for their future. Because when you ask your kids, “What do you want to be when you were up?” Or, “What do you think you’re going to major in, in college?” They’re like, “I don’t know.” But when you ask them about, “What’s important to you? What are your goals? If you could meet yourself again in 20 years, what do you hope is happening?” Those kinds of questions that are open-ended and really get at who they want to be as human beings. Those are the questions that will give you the information about your kids that’s interesting.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    The conventional wisdom in the world of therapy is also, when you have teenagers, that it’s more important to listen than to talk.

    Jessica Lahey

    Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    So if you’re listening and you’re trying to listen to a teenager that doesn’t want to talk, and you’re trying to have a conversation about drugs or alcohol, how do you do that?

    Jessica Lahey

    So I use the side door law, which is to ask about how other people’s opinions. For example, it was fascinating to me, I had no idea years ago, I asked, “Which would be easier for you to get pot or tobacco cigarette?” And it was clear that tobacco was going to be much harder for them to get than pot.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Really?

    Jessica Lahey

    Yeah. And I had no idea. I think my youngest was in middle school when I asked that question, and my oldest one was like, “Oh, a 100%, absolutely. Easier to get pot than to get tobacco cigarettes.” Or if I want to ask about… The Brian thing was so valuable for me, because so many answers to Ben’s question about what was going on with Brian really related to how he was perceiving the whole situation. And that’s a ton of information for me as well. So I’m constantly… And the reason that all of these data points are in the book is, because that’s ammunition for me. So like I said, if my eighth graders saying, “Man, a lot of people are drinking.” And I know for a fact that it’s only 24% of eighth graders admit to having a drink of alcohol before the end of eighth grade. That’s important information for me to have, if I understand this concept of pluralistic ignorance, which I talk about a couple of times in the book, then that’s important information for me to give them. And that was fascinating to me.

    And that information is this, we tend to overestimate other people’s investment for these purposes in drugs and alcohol. Specifically, alcohol, I think, is how I talked about this in the book. If I were to ask my college student son how much his friends drink, he will overestimate the amount. It’s just something we tend to do. When Princeton got rid of kegs, they used it as an opportunity to ask the students how much they cared about the new keg ban. And the students, generally speaking, said, “Well, I don’t care that much, but everyone else cares a lot. It’s really a big deal to everyone else.” So that’s a self-perpetuating situation.

    Because if you think about it, that’s at a college, a college not likely to offer either sober or non-alcoholic offerings at something, because they’re likely to say, “Well, everyone is going to care so much about having alcohol there, that there’s no reason for us to have a non-alcoholic offering.” When actually when you ask kids how much they care, they don’t care that as much as they perceive other people care.

    So when you can use that information to say, “Look, you think that it’s going to be really important for everyone to be drinking beer at this party. It’s just not how it works. Your perception of how much other people care is elevated.” And what’s fascinating also about that is that boys tend to elevate their use to match what they perceive the norm to be, which is overinflated. And girls, if they don’t want to drink, but they perceive erroneously that the norm is that other people care more, they will withdraw. And they’ll tend to either move away from the group, move into themselves, which can be its own issue as well.

    So helping kids understand, give them lots of exit strategies, give them data, and give them data about their brains. What I’m talking about here is not just, I don’t want kids to drink because of their risk of substance use disorder during their lifetime. It is true that if a kid starts drinking when they’re in eighth grade or using drugs in eighth grade, that their lifetime risk of substance use disorder is around 50%. If we get them to 10th grade, it’s down to like 17%. And if we get them to 18 years old to 12th grade, it’s down to 10%. That’s half of the picture. The other half is we’re not talking about adult brains here. We’re talking about developing brains and drugs and alcohol do things to developing brains that is simply of lower risk, or I’m not going to say no risk, but of relatively low risk in adult brains.

    With each year that we delay kids’ use, we protect their brains for just a little longer. And the risk is real. It’s not small things. It’s like, the hippocampus in kids who chronically use pot is much smaller than in the brains of kids who don’t use pot. And hippocampus’-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And how permanent is that damage.

    Jessica Lahey

    Some of it is permanent, and some of it… That’s unclear, it depends on the study you look at. There is permanent damage that is done though. And so there is a question I get quite often, which is this question, which is, the conversation is so scary for me, because what do I tell my kid about my own use? And clearly, for me, my own use is out there. My kids know all the dirty details now, but we also talk about my husband. And my husband when he was first out of college was really unhappy. He didn’t have a job he liked. He wasn’t doing what he wanted to do. He was feeling like he was a disappointment to himself and to his family. And he was smoking a lot of pot. He also lived in a house where they were growing it in the basement, so it was there all the time. And he was smoking a lot of pot.

    And we talk about the fact that going into that year, his short-term memory was much better than it was coming out, and coming out, he really needed that short-term memory. And when he was deep into the pot use, during that one year, he was not in a position to be making decisions. He wasn’t motivated. He wasn’t changing what was essentially the problem, which is that he wasn’t fulfilling what he felt his life should be.

    I think it’s really important to give kids a clear, not romanticized, they may not need to know every single detail, but a clear vision of what these things can do to us, and why. And why it’s so dangerous in the adolescent brain and less so in the adult brain. And so if you can just delay, delay, delay, then your brain will be in a place where it will do a lot less damage.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Jessica Lahey, it was wonderful talking to you today.

    Jessica Lahey

    It was-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Thank you so much.

    Jessica Lahey

    … so great talking to you. I’m so grateful that people are talking about this more. I will say this, every time I’m on stage, and I mentioned that I’m in recovery, people email me. So the more we talk about it, the more other people will feel okay talking about it. And I’m just so grateful to be in a position to help with that.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Well, congratulation, and the book is “The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence.” It’s a one wonderful book.

    Jessica Lahey

    Thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Every parent, I think, should read this, so thank you-

    Jessica Lahey

    Thank you so much.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    … and congratulations.

    Thank you so much for listening to Heart of the Matter today. Take a second to subscribe and rate our podcast if you enjoy the show, because only with your support can we continue to transform the way our country addresses addiction. And you can find this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and of course on our website at drugfree.org/podcast. And as a reminder, if you need help with a loved one who’s struggling with substance use, you can text 55753 or visit us at drugfree.org. Talk to you soon.

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    Published

    May 2021