Once upon a time, there was a fierce dragon that stalked the land. He was cunning, he was lethal, and no man, woman or child was safe from his ravages.
When he breathed his fearsome fire into the brain of unsuspecting victims, it burned there for their entire lives: little flames whipping up their cravings and crackling out orders to do the unimaginable.
The saddest victims of all were the children, who lived with those afflicted. They wandered, always, looking for safe spaces, and wondered if they, too, would have to live life like the monsters their beloved caregivers sometimes became.
The dragon’s name was SUD, and he was invincible. No one could defeat him, although wise sages offered ways to tame him…
The dragon, of course, is the disease of substance use disorder, commonly called addiction, or alcoholism. It is a disease of the brain that affects some 27 million Americans, of all socioeconomic, ethnic, and professional groups. It cannot be cured, although it can be managed.BUT, you ask, what does substance use disorder have to do with being an early educator??? It’s not like a four year old is going to come into class drunk or high, and goodness knows those of us who work with the youngest children have our hands full already! Between planning stimulating curriculum, wiping noses, supervising the monkey bars, rubbing backs at nap time, and preparing for state inspections, we barely have time to go to the bathroom, much less add a whole area of curriculum into our busy days. PLUS: if we wanted to be social workers, we would have gone into social work!
But here’s the thing: One in four children in the U.S. lives in a family affected by substance use disorder (SUD). That means that if you have a class of 16, you may very well have at least four children who not only go home to caregivers who are suffering from the disease, but are also genetically at risk for developing it themselves.
Often, you’ll have no idea who these kids are. Although you may hear mumbles about the mom who always is just few minutes late on Fridays for pick up, or the dad who smells like stale beer when he drops off his son in the morning, the drinking or drugging usually goes on outside our view. However, while all families are different, there are some clues we can look for in children’s behavior that might mean that the child is coping with stressors related to this family disease.
This is because drinking and drugging are just the superficial symptoms of substance use disorder (SUD). Other, more subtle, ways that it influences family dynamics can interact with the developing brain’s stress response and self-regulatory systems. And this can lead to those pesky “challenging behaviors” that keep us up at night, and leave us exhausted during the day. But worse: the brain’s response to a these family dynamics sets the stage for the child’s increased vulnerability to SUD as they grow into adolescence.
As early educators, we can’t fix families. And we can’t offer children the counseling and behavioral therapy that other professionals can. But we can, because of the hours we spend with kids every day, establish relationships and offer learning experiences that can buffer them from what is going on outside the classroom.
The more we understand about the disease, the better we will be able to support children and their families. Below you’ll find a collection of resources, culled from the hundreds out there, that will offer an introduction to this dastardly dragon we call the disease of substance use disorder.