Education, normalization, and meaningful connection safeguard kids

Clients of all ages often infer that substance experimentation is a normal developmental process. Or that genetics predispose a person to addiction. The desire for social connection and the natural process of curiosity are certainly common influences, as are family history and genetics. But considering the many factors involved in early substance misuse, how can we as parents, teachers and community members make a difference?

Researcher Gabor Maté suggests that the three environmental conditions essential to child brain development are nutrition, physical security and consistent emotional human interaction. Abraham Maslow proposes that these are the critical needs in the hierarchy of healthy development. But in our modern culture, supportive and undistracted face-to-face emotional interaction, what Maté calls “emotional nurturing,” is most likely to be disrupted. He notes that children need to experience “attachment relationships,” and that a child’s brain cannot develop optimally without healthy human connection. Another researcher, Daniel Siegel, suggests that human connections create “neuronal connections,” the same connections involved in the neurological processes of addiction.

The well-known Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study looked at 10 categories of environmental circumstances. In this study, a correlation was made between these circumstances and early substance misuse. It found that for each adverse childhood experience, the risk increased four times. The study showed that adverse experiences such as abuse or neglect are common. But these more traditional examples of trauma were not the only indicators of an adverse experience. Emotional isolation causes the same vulnerability. They all result in a disruption of brain development and represent a common adversity: lack of emotional nurturing.

The good news is that prevention is cultivated in part by meaningful human connection and we can provide the nurturing kids need. Indeed, these efforts are vital for both kids and adults. The socio-emotional maturation process continues past childhood and consistent emotional interaction is always central to a person’s well-being. Additionally, we teach other resiliencies through education and communication.

A team of local professionals has been collaborating to develop Substance Misuse Prevention educational lessons for students at Homer Middle School. In addition to presenting the lesson package in the classrooms over the past year, the group has been talking with kids about their experiences, addressing their questions, and listening to their concerns. A recent Adult Talks event provided an opportunity to share the lesson plans with the community and, just as importantly, discuss what kids are saying about substance misuse. Parents, teachers, and others provided their experiences and insights, further informing the lesson package as it continues to improve.

This Substance Misuse Prevention lesson package is the first psychoeducational curriculum of its kind in the state, a baffling statistic given the prevalence of childhood substance misuse and its decades-long impact on kids and their families. If we want to alter the course, the narrative of secrecy around substance misuse and mental health must change. It begins with meaningful connection, prevention education, and open conversation about common childhood struggles, like depression and anxiety, that are so often linked to misuse.

The team is continuing their work on the lesson plans and will be providing it to students around the Homer and Kachemak Bay area starting again in the fall. They are also working toward modifying it for older students as well. The final objective is to make substance misuse prevention education a mainstay in our local schools, and to provide other schools-even boroughs and districts across the state-with a new resource they can implement themselves. But it will have been a success if helps just one kid, one family in Homer.

If you would like to learn more about the Substance Misuse Prevention lesson package, please call Anna at the R.E.C. Room. 235-3436;Amy Woodruff, Prevention Coordinator at Haven House, 235-1580, or Tim Robinson at Kachemak Counseling Clinic, 602-2578.

Tim Robinson is owner of Kachemak Counseling Clinic in Homer where he provides therapy for adolescents and adults. .