Talk early and often about drugs

by Jennifer Chick
Sun Thisweek

Talk about drugs and alcohol early and often with your kids. That was one of the strongest and most frequently repeated message from a youth drug use presentation and panel at Kenwood Trail Middle School in Lakeville Monday night.

The presentation and panel were sponsored by the Lakeville and Farmington school districts as part of a free parent information series.

Carol Falkowski, former drug abuse strategy officer for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, was the keynote speaker, detailing what drug abuse looks like for today’s teens and what parents, schools and communities can do to stop the abuse.

Following her presentation, school resource officers and chemical health coordinators from Farmington and Lakeville joined Carol Ackley, the director of River Ridge Treatment Center, and Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom to talk about the issue from a local perspective.

“It’s ignorance if you don’t find out what’s going on out there, you can’t be an advocate for your child,” said Brenda Dolejs, a parent from Lakeville who attended the session with her husband, Mike, and about 75 other people.

Mike Dolejs said these issues have impacted their neighborhood and community, making him more aware of the problems out there.

“I got to work every day and don’t see it, but it is reality,” he said. “It really is happening in our community even though we don’t see it.”

“You can’t really stick your head in the sand,” Brenda Dolejs added. “It is a reality here.”

Falkowski said recent statistics show that 70 percent of Minnesota high school seniors have tried alcohol, with 54 percent of those reporting that they have become drunk. Marijuana use was reportedly tried by 45 percent of high school seniors, followed by 21 percent trying prescription drugs, 12 percent trying narcotics other than heroin, and 5 percent trying cocaine.

In the last two decades, Falkowski said, alcohol and cigarette use have dropped, but illicit drug use has actually risen. More kids are smoking marijuana than cigarettes.

“I don’t know any parent who can really appreciate how different drug use is,” Falkowski said. “It’s constantly changing.”

Prescription drug abuse is rising, and kids often start with drugs found in their medicine cabinets at home. Citizens can dispose of unneeded prescriptions at 24/7 drop sites in Hastings, Burnsville and West St. Paul.

“Kids growing up in this day and age are very familiar with drugs,” Falkowski said. “They see drugs all around them.”

And statistics show that the earlier people use drugs and alcohol, the more likely they are to develop addictions to those drugs. Backstrom said if people start using alcohol and marijuana before they are 15 years old, they are four times more likely to develop addiction.

He has experienced it firsthand and shared his family’s situation publicly for the first time Monday night. His 37-year-old nephew died from alcohol abuse last fall.

Backstrom said his nephew started drinking in high school and could never stop. It is a situation his family is still reeling from.

In humans, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that assesses situations, controls impulses, and is used in sound decision making, does not finish fully developing until people are in their mid-20s, Falkowski said.

“It’s this under-construction teen brain that kind of heightens the risk when you introduce drugs and psychoactive substances,” Falkowski said.

Ackley, who works for the River Ridge Treatment Center in the Adolescent Division, said taking drugs when adolescents’ brains are still developing can change brain development dramatically and permanently.

She said the message to send out to kids is, “We care about you. We want you to grow up.”

“We can help kids get to adulthood intact and hopefully to help them fulfill their dreams,” she said.

Parents need to talk with their kids early and often, pay attention, listen but don’t lecture, make expectations clear, and set and enforce consequences.

“If you’re not telling them ‘No,’ you are telling them ‘Yes,’ ” Falkowski said. “Your silence is interpreted as implicit approval.”

Backstrom backed up that idea.

“The number one impact on kids who don’t abuse is the information they receive from mom and dad,” he said.

Schools and communities must also be a part of the solution to this growing problem. Schools must connect with students, create structured and caring school environments and show positive relationships with adults.

School resource officers in Farmington and Lakeville are there to help kids before situations become something that must be handled only by the law enforcement system.

“We want to help your kids,” said Officer Andy Hentges, SRO for Lakeville North High School, Kenwood Trail and Century middle schools. “That’s why we are here.”

Parent Brenda Dolejs appreciates the school districts’ willingness to put together free sessions like the one Monday night.

“We are blessed to be in a community that believes in educating parents,” she said.

For more information on this issue or to share concerns about students, contact Elaine Korsch at Lakeville Schools, (952) 232-2091, and Lisa Lippold, Farmington Schools, (651) 252-2565.

The last parenting session will be Tuesday, March 19, 7 p.m., at Farmington High School with 2011 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Katy Smith.