EDITOR’S NOTE — Across the nation, children and teens are plagued by a host of escalating tragedies. In this series, we look at several issues facing America’s endangered youth and offer ways you and your church can help care for the next generation. To see more stories in this series, click here.
The numbers are startling. In the past year, alcohol abuse increased 62 percent, with more than 400,000 12- to 17-year-olds meeting the criteria for Alcohol Abuse Disorder.
In a recent survey, more than 2 million of the same age group also reported using illicit drugs in the past month. Many more are dependent on prescription drugs and tobacco.
It’s a big problem.
Vulnerable to addictions
Some children have tendencies that cause them to be more vulnerable to addictions, such as if they are daredevil risk-takers, if they live in social alienation or isolation or if they are a victim of a childhood trauma. Genetics can also play a big part in a child’s vulnerability to addiction, according to Nationwide Children’s.
Addictive behavior can start in early childhood. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents have their children screened for substance use as early as age 9.
Early substance abuse can affect the growth and development of children and teens, especially brain development, and lead to later health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure and sleep disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
By 12th grade, two-thirds of students have tried alcohol, with those from ages 12 to 20 consuming one-tenth of all alcohol in the United States. More than 1 million 12-to-17-year-olds reported binge-drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
80,000 deaths each year
About 90% of the alcohol consumed by U.S. youth under age 21 is in the form of binge drinks. More than 80,000 deaths each year are blamed on binge drinking, half of these deaths resulting from injuries that involve young people.
Not only has alcohol abuse skyrocketed, drug abuse among U.S. youth has also increased 61 percent.
By the time teens reach the 12th grade, almost half of them (46.6%) have tried illicit drugs. Nearly 800,000 12- to 17-year-olds currently meet the criteria for Illicit Drug Use Disorder.
And tobacco use is so high among children and youth today, health specialists predict that at the current rate of use 5.6 million Americans under age 18 will die early from a smoking-related illness.
According to the CDC, each day in the United States about 1,600 youth smoke their first cigarette. Two hundred of them will start a habit of daily smoking.
E-cigarettes, vaping, and the new flavored tobacco also contribute to the tobacco crisis among youth.
In light of all that, what can pastors, churches and parents do to help prevent child and youth substance abuse? Here are some suggestions:
Know the signs
Substance abuse can bring dramatic changes in the behaviors of youth and children — changes in eating and sleep patterns, loss of interest in school, dropping grades, self-mutilation, loneliness, depression, bad moods, sadness, neglecting personal hygiene, lying, stealing, poor concentration and coordination, slurred speech and risky behaviors.
Pastors and churches can help parents understand and recognize substance abuse signs by hosting youth substance abuse seminars led by agency professionals in the community.
Church leaders can also teach parents how to develop good communication with their children, set limits and safe boundaries, encourage them in order to build their confidence, provide safe supervision and know their friends.
Parents who struggle with a child’s substance addiction can feel like Lone Rangers. Many don’t know where to turn for help.
Identify parents in the church and community who are dealing with a child’s substance addiction, and minister to them directly. You can bring parents together in church-sponsored support groups to talk, pray and show each other support.
You also can make valuable information and resources available to community and church parents of substance-addicted children or youth, encouraging parents to get help by putting them in touch with local addiction prevention and recovery agencies like Voice for the Children or American Addiction Centers.
Your church can also more fully embrace the whole family, hosting church programs and recreational events for children and youth and encouraging parents to help supervise the activities and become actively involved.