Colton’s parents had become so overwhelmed by their own lives that they began to neglect the emotional lives of their sons.
When Colton was a little boy, he was active and playful, fit and social. His hair was a corona of light, and his eyes blue gemstones that sparkled with happiness. His mother called him Salamander, because he could pretty much always be found in the nearby creek hunting frogs, tadpoles and the ever-elusive salamander. His skin stayed tan from the sun, even in late fall, and he had to be forced to come back indoors for dinner. He was a happy kid and a good one. He trusted and made friends easily.
But Colton’s life began to change at around age 10 or 11, when his mother began to suspect his dad of having an affair. She began to fray around the edges. He stopped playing outside so much; someone needed to make sure his mom was OK. She cried a lot and sometimes threw screaming fits at his older brothers. To busy himself, Colton got into video games—World of Warcraft, mostly—but he played lots of them. He was the youngest, but he could best his brothers in a first-person shooter game.
That fall, Colton and his mom hardly left the house except for the drive back and forth to school—not even to check for fox tracks or ginseng root. It was confirmed that Colton’s dad was spending time with another woman, but his mom said nothing—only cried. All of this caused Colton to worry a lot more; you could say he was downright fretful. He didn’t seem to laugh or even smile anymore. Together, they frosted cakes and kneaded dough for pastries. She drowned her sorrows in powdered sugar, and her youngest son stood by her side, tasting everything she made … except when his eyes were glazed over by the light from those video games.
“Colton’s old sparkle is gone,” remarked his aunt to his mother. “I’m worried about him.”
“Oh, there’s nothing wrong with Colton,” his mother said. “He’s my perfect son.”
She had no idea how very wrong her words would be.
Red Flags For Addiction In Kids
Anxiety—All people, and all children, experience a certain degree of anxiety, and that’s not inherently a bad thing. Some anxiety can be motivating. But prolonged or excessive anxiety can become problematic; it can lead to self-destructive behaviors. In Colton’s case, he sought to self-medicate his anxiety through behaviors that held an addictive component—gaming and eating. It’s important that we see the dangers in process addictions as well as substance addictions. Sometimes, one can lead to the other; it is addiction that is the root problem.
Depression—It may seem strange to think of children and depression together, but studies show that even young children suffer this affliction—and that it can lead to self-medicating behaviors through substance or process addictions. Some sadness and mood swings are normal, but pay attention to prolonged periods of low mood and poor affect, to changes in sleep patterns and appetite. Try to maintain an open, non-judgmental dialogue with your child and check in. Depression is a painful disorder that requires treatment.
Alienation—Does your child seem to be hibernating? Has he stopped hanging out with friends? Is she unwilling to attend family gatherings or to come out of her room when guests are over? You may have decided this is just how your child is, but it could very well be a sign your child needs help. Depression and anxiety are frequently isolating, and social alienation may be a sign your child is at risk for substance use.
Emotional Avoidance—Have you noticed that you child has become unwilling to process or experience difficult feelings? Does she shut down at the mention of subjects she finds difficult to stomach? Does he leave the room or go quiet at the mention of someone causing him to feel hurt or feel angry? The suppression of difficult emotions may be leaving your child at risk for later substance or process misuse, a means of self-medicating difficult feelings.
Risk-Taking—Have you noticed an increase in risk-taking behaviors in your teen? A teen’s brain is actually wired to seek risk, a process that prepares a young person to move out into the world. During this period, a young person’s brain is wired to express more dopamine—a neurotransmitter associated with reward and motivation. Their brains allow them to feel even better after scoring a three-point shot, completing a perfect solo dance performance or having a mud fight with friends. They will seek risk—it’s important for their brains’ growth—so it’s important that the right kinds of risks (through healthy activities) are available to them. Too much boredom can often turn a teen toward substance use.
As is often the case, Colton’s parents had become so overwhelmed by their own lives that they began to neglect the emotional lives of their sons. Colton seemed “perfect,” but his mother was blinded. In her suffering, she couldn’t see how her youngest had already fallen prey to process addictions, which may just make substance use later on all the easier.
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