Last night a principal of a prominent high school called me after her son had dropped out of treatment. She normally had a very strong demeanor, but now she was on the verge of a break down, “We did everything right with our kids. We provided them with everything, yet he sits at home and refuses any help.” Finally she asked the question that parents and family members who visit my office inevitably ask, “What did we do wrong?”

Addiction is an amazingly complicated disease. In Alcoholics Anonymous it is labeled: Cunning, baffling, and powerful. Identifying, diagnosing, and treating it are incredibly difficult; understanding its roots is nearly impossible. I do not believe that one single factor can account for the development of an “addictive personality.” However, through my work in this field, I have been able to identify common denominators.

One of most frequent indicators of addiction is the inability to experience vulnerability, which is endemic to Western culture. We live in a world where the message is often: emotions=weakness. Sometimes, we even grow up in homes where that idea is communicated. A father’s first instinct when his eight year old comes home crying after being teased on the bus, is to tell him to stop crying and “man up.” Or similarly, his mother suggests that he ignore those bullies. Both of these suggestions implicitly tell the child that his experience – feeling negative emotions: pain, hurt, and shame should not occur. He is told to act as if nothing happened. I have been guilty of doing this same thing with my child. When he comes running to me, crying “Booboo,” my gut reaction is to say “Don’t cry, it doesn’t hurt.” But, IT DOES HURT.

We have many techniques that allow us to remain distracted and not dwell in our negative emotions. Many of my clients come into my office desperately trying to purge all negative feelings – ironically, creating even more anxiety and tension. They boldly state, “Emotions are weakness.” By ‘emotions,’ they are only referring to the negative experiences; they would never purposefully want to dull happiness, confidence, belonging, or excitement.

Drugs and alcohol are frequently used as a common numbing method. However, they are not the only technique people use to avoid reality. Just look at the soaring obesity rate, excessive reliance on mood-altering medications (anti-depressants are the most frequently prescribed medication in adults 18-44; their prescription rate has skyrocketed 400% in the last 15 years,) extreme debt, and soaring divorce rates.

I will not audaciously state that I have the preventative tool for addiction. However, I deeply believe that any movement we make towards accepting our own vulnerabilities diminishes the chances of addiction. Teaching our children the ability to make room to feel painful emotions is one of the best drug-prevention skills we can teach them.

Written by a staff member at The SAFE Foundation.