Can Our Kids Truly Understand Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Fate?

"Charlie Wilson's War" New York PremiereMy daughter’s eighth grade science class was just finishing up a unit on drug abuse when I learned the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death from an apparent heroin overdose.

Each student was given a drug to write about, which required research on how those drugs are abused and the potential consequences of abuse. As the mother of a soon-to-be high school student, I was pleased that the kids in her class were getting a more in-depth exposure to the consequences of drug abuse of all types, including the sometimes less talked about prescription drug problem, rather than just the all too familiar admonition we give our kids to “Just say no.”

But as I was thinking about Hoffman and his addiction issues, which so many people had assumed he’d beaten after 20-plus years of being clean, I wondered how good of a job we do of incorporating discussions about addiction into the ‘why drugs are bad for you’ lessons we teach our children.

From the discussions we’ve had with our 14-year-old, I know that at this point in her life she is genuinely puzzled why in the world anyone would consider abusing any of the substances they’ve learned about – marijuana, cocaine, pills, heroin and more – if they are aware that an overdose, or the wrong combination of drugs in smaller amounts, could kill them. But is it possible to get our kids to truly understand that when it comes to addiction, users have little or no control without the right support? Or that no matter how they think about drugs today, they, too, could become addicts? Our daughter’s science teacher confirmed to me that the class has talked about what addiction is, but is a definition ever really enough to get our teens to truly understand the stark and possibly deadly realities of addiction?

Even if we get our kids to listen, a recent study about whether adolescent brains are more susceptible to addiction suggests that “there is substantial evidence that adolescents engage in dangerous activities, including drug abuse, despite knowing and understanding the risks involved,” and that, sadly, the developing teen brain might actually be “pre-wired” for behavior that could lead to addiction.

So while the recent news about Hoffman is horrible, I hoped that I could use it as one of those famed parental “teaching moments.” Maybe, I thought, the unfolding news reports about how a successful adult with a family and everything to look forward to in the world, and who had been clean for so long, would get her focused on addiction as a dangerous reality, rather than just an abstract concept.

Unless there is a family history of addiction, there is no way to know which of us is susceptible to becoming an addict. And with teens being notorious for not being the best practitioners of self control, how do we find a way to get our kids to internalize the real dangers of going down that rabbit hole?

According to the authors of that same study about adolescent brains, “A provocative statement would argue that science should better see the adult world with adolescent eyes, rather than seeing the adolescent world using an adult watch.” With that thought in mind, maybe the answer is to get her talking about how Hoffman, and others like him, became addicts in the first place. During the filming of the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, Hoffman told Aaron Sorkin that if one of them died from a drug overdose, he hoped that it could be used as a lesson to keep others from suffering the same fate.

It might be a tall order to get adults to see the world through the eyes of their adolescents as they talk with them about stories like Hoffman’s. But if we can use the lessons of Hoffman’s addiction to keep just a handful of teens alive, it will be worth the effort.

Joanne Bamberger is an independent journalist who is also the author of the book Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America. She is also the publisher of the The Broad Side. You can find her on Twitter at @jlcbamberger.

Image via iStockphoto

  • One of the more provocative comments I read, and i think it came from Aaron Sorkin, is that Hoffman died not of an overdose, but of heroin itself. He said that when we report it as an overdose, we imply that just taking heroin when it is not an overdose, is okay. I thought that was a perceptive comment.

    It is so scary to think about our young people and the things they face in the world. Though my child is a decade older than yours, I am still fearful of what else is out there.

    Great post.

  • Kim Cottrell

    With a young person in our family now finished with the rehabilitation process, successfully, I’ve had many months to ponder the issues you’re bringing up. All my background in cognitive behavior and the development of the brain, including risk-taking, adrenalin seeking, and trying to fit in, lead me to think there are some kids more susceptible than others. I have a feeling each parent knows which one their child is. Not to say we should not pay attention and just kick back, but at least during the time when a child is living at home, we know them. We know if they are a risk taker. I can look back at our family member and see how he pushed the limits from a very young age. He was vulnerable and when the time presented itself, he deftly maneuvered and obtained adderall (from his doctor, oy) and voila, he was set. In some ways, it felt like there was no stopping a freight train. I guess what I’m saying is that you know in your heart which child will struggle with that. In many ways, it’s too bad there can’t be targeted educational programs that focus on increasing the sense of self-worth, building self-confidence, exploring personal and family challenges and teaching vulnerable young people to be good problem-solvers to meet the goal they choose for themselves. When the wilderness rehabilitation program presented all those opportunities, they worked. Why not mimic the lessons learned in those settings, at home, at school, and so on. Most kids don’t need them, but some do, indeed!

  • This was a great post. There is a lot of addiction in my family, and I am struggling with how to adequately prepare my kids to make the right choices when they are confronted with drugs and alcohol. Kim’s comment about knowing your child is very well taken. I have an 11 and a 14 year old, and I am constantly trying to parse out what kinds of challenges they are going to face in life given their personalities. My 14 year old is very much not a risk taker. However, what I see in him is a desire to impress his friends, to go along with the pack, to be “cool.” I am terrified that he will lack the confidence in himself to say no when others are saying yes. I’m not sure which personality trait will win out.

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