Opiates and Outcome Fever

I spoke to a father of three teenage boys recently, a very reasonable, bright man. He expressed concern about the fact that opiates are out there, and we talked about striking that parenting balance around drugs and alcohol, about finding that sweet spot where you don’t issue blanket prohibitions that are impossible to enforce, nor do you become overly permissive.

This brought up some things I’ve been mulling over:

  1. Why are so many teenagers sniffing and shooting opiates, boys and girls who, a generation ago, wouldn’t have even entertained a thought of using them?
  2. What are the more complex dynamics in middle- and upper-class schools and families that are causing kids to use opiates?

Actually, I would argue that “good” kids are taking risks with many aspects of their lives, not just opiates. In fact, many of their choices can be seen through the lens of addictive behavior, whether it’s sex, working out, drinking, video games, even schoolwork.

There are, of course, many reasons why an individual becomes addicted to something. One of the biggest reasons is to medicate pain. And in my experience with thousands of kids, one of the most painful things that can happen to them is Outcome Fever. The problem here is the kids are suffering, but it’s the parents who are infected with it.

I find myself writing about this constantly: kids’ emotional needs are not getting met. They are always on the go, chasing an ever-narrowing range of acceptable results—acceptable to their parents, that is. Over and over again, the dominant message I hear from parents is, “Go, go, go – do, do, do – achieve, achieve, achieve.”

For grades, what I often hear is for many teens, anything less than an A is a disappointment. In every subject. It doesn’t matter what the child’s strengths and weaknesses are, or how hard they tried.

In my athletic workshops, I see kids—even pre-teen kids—specializing in one sport, 52 weeks a year. It is common for parents to spend thousands of dollars a year on travel teams and “elite” tournaments. Do kids find this fun? Often, they think it’s a lot of pressure, because this kind of focus is because parents want their kids to get an athletic college scholarship or make a D1 team. What started out as a game from which their kids drew a lot of joy has been transformed into a job.

The problem is all “do, do, do” and no “be, be, be” makes children depressed and anxious.

The discussions I have with many parents center around these questions:

  • What is the nature of your relationship and interactions with your children?
  • How much are you focused on outcomes vs. your child’s particular journey?
  • How much do you just hang out or do a relaxed activity with no particular aim or level of achievement in mind?
  • What is your definition of “success?”

Many parents, when I ask them these questions, realize that they have Outcome Fever: that almost everything they do with their children is driven by the outcome they desire for their child, whether it is getting straight A’s or excelling in after-curricular activities, all usually to fuel their goals and ambitions for their children’s lives. Often, these goals and ambitions were set without consulting their children or set when kids are too young to truly consult.

Think about the now well-known “helicopter parent.” Have you ever thought about why they hover over their child’s every move? Why they excoriate teachers and coaches when things don’t go as the parents envisioned? Because that parent wants to control every outcome their child has. After all, if they weren’t worried about the outcome, why would they be hovering?

Now let’s look at Outcome Fever from a different perspective: how it influences your child. If you are so focused on outcomes they form the primary basis for your interactions—your very relationship—with your child, then what do you think is going to happen? Let me tell you: your child is going to start to worry about what happens if they don’t achieve the outcomes that you have set for them. And that enormous pressure, even if it doesn’t come directly from you, makes your child anxious about what that is going to do to your relationship.

Because, you see, with pressure like that they truly are afraid they’re going to lose you, that your love has strings attached. Even though every parent I’ve met will say—and mean it—that they love their children unconditionally, when you keep focusing on the outcomes—even the outcomes your child has said they want for themselves—and not your child’s journey, your child will start to believe that your love is conditional. Whether that is actually true is immaterial; your child’s perception is their truth.

And when you throw in all of the gizmos we now all constantly use that keep us from truly connecting, plus the frenzied schedules for both children and adults that allows days—dare I say weeks?—when you don’t have a meal or even a meaningful conversation with your child, so you don’t know what’s going on in your child’s life and can’t set a needed limit, you can see how this anxiety never gets alleviated.

I speak from experience when I say that kids today feels those strings, and when they start playing with fire, be it opiates, Tinder, or whatever, it’s because they don’t feel connected to their parents, to the guiding anchor of their family. I would add that many schools I visit don’t provide that anchor either: a lot of educators, frankly, are feeding the achievement beast.

So, on a basic level, a seventeen-year-old putting opiates in his or her body is nothing more complicated than a three-year-old who’s scared his or her parents aren’t there for them after a nightmare and sobs uncontrollably in their bed. If no one shows up to comfort, the message is absorbed.

So put the smartphone or tablet down right now and write—handwrite—your answers to these seven questions. And be honest!

  1. Am I spending enough down time with my kids and my partner?
  2. Am I a relaxed, confident model for my kids?
  3. Am I drinking or using drugs too much?
  4. Am I focused too much on outcomes and too little on the journey?
  5. Do I know what my kids’ dreams are?
  6. Is my behavior honest?
  7. Do I play and do things with my family that demonstrate the joy of just connecting, with no strings attached?

Bonus question: How do you feel when your child’s vision of who they want to be doesn’t match your hopes for them?

How’d you do? Need to tweak anything, a little or a lot? Remember, kids need a combination of comfort and limits, so your list of changes might include:

  • Establish a new tone, a new culture in your home that centers around relaxing and connecting. Yup, you’ll all have to lop off some activities to accomplish this.
  • Make a new set of rules:
    • Dinner as a family at least four nights a week.
    • No digital gadgets when you’re gathered together; keep the TV off too.
    • Establish a family mission plan: each member, including parents, expresses his or her dreams, and you make a plan to support one another in their pursuit.
    • Tell your 8th–10th graders that booze and drugs are prohibited, and pee test them randomly.
  • Say no often to stuff your kids want to do—or already do—that’s bad for them. That’s right: establish yourself as an awesome parent who’s not afraid to disappoint his kids!
    • When they argue about it, tell them if it continues, they’ll lose more stuff.
  • Don’t live through your kids.
  • Don’t bad mouth their teachers and coaches.
  • Know their strengths and weaknesses and tell them B’s and C’s are OK if they’re trying their best.
  • Let them explore different sports, hobbies, and identities.
  • Don’t live through your kids!! I mean it!
  • Don’t use money as a weapon.
  • Bravely look in the mirror at your issues and hang-ups.
  • Live by the Golden Rule, particularly with your partner and children.

Goals and outcomes are not inherently evil. They are just much healthier when they are tied to dreams—the dreams of the individual who has to implement the goals and outcomes.

You, Dear Parent, get to call the cultural shots in your home. Buck the trends. Make your kids and connecting with them a priority. Cut the strings.