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Listening to kids might be more powerful than any drug

Erin Rhoda and the One Life Project are to be commended for the attention and solutions they bring to the addiction epidemic in our state. Their latest series “Before Addiction there is a Child” is truly remarkable. In seeking to understand the experiences of young people, they solicited the views of teenagers across Maine.

And those young adults came through in spades.

The most common suggestion I noted in their feedback was how much they needed people in their schools and communities who would “listen without judgment”, “without interruption”, and “without telling (me) what to do.”


To listen without judgment is no small thing. It’s a process of helping folks find their own solutions instead of pushing our views upon them. It leads to young people feeling understood and supported in making choices – not just in what they will and won’t do but moreover in how they will live and who they will become. Best of all, it helps them to be comfortable with themselves.

It’s one of the greatest investments we can make in our world.

I have reached an age that allows for unfortunate nostalgia.  I contrast my experience to what I see young people living with today. My generation grew up with the fear of nuclear war and the emergence of AIDS. We didn’t know that grandma’s medicine cabinet could take away our pain. Our current generation is growing up in the middle of two wars, terrorism, easy access to drugs and wide spread addiction.

There’s no value in comparing fears, struggles, or pain. Each generation has it’s challenges but as my brilliant friend Karen Foley pointed out to me, AIDS then is similar to addiction now in that folks want to believe it would never happen to them. Most of us didn’t/don’t start caring about these issues until someone we care for is afflicted.

This is the world we live in: the latest numbers from the CDC show that one in six adults between the ages of 14 and 49 live with genital herpes. Despite overwhelming evidence that people from every walk of life become afflicted with diseases, we still want to believe we’re immune. If we can’t successfully provide effective sexual education through public schools, what the hell are the chances we’ll be able to address everything that leads to addiction?

This is a community responsibility. Our schools have been overwhelmed for decades now. I kinda want to walk through town yelling at adults, “All hands on deck!” and hugging every young person I meet. (one of the most basic and yet overlooked of needs)

Sometimes I want to apologize to young people because we’ve left them such a mess of a world. Worse, this generation had the grave misfortune of being raised my generation. Frankly, I don’t think most of us knew what we were doing. We grew up in the 80’s scared, sexually messed up, and emotionally stunted, raised by baby boomers who knew the world was changing and had little idea what to do about it.

The greatest challenge I see for the current generation of young people is to not be apathetic. If I were in their shoes, I’d take stock of things like Afghanistan, Iraq, heroin, racial and economic injustice, Paul LePage, and our national deficit and I’d conclude that it just hurts too much to care.

The disease of addiction flourishes when it can convince the individual that there is no hope, there is no purpose, there is no available means to get better. That was why I used drugs as an adolescent and it seems to be more or less the world we’ve given to our kids.

“Running away from pain. When you’ve been victimized. Tales from another broken home” – Green Day, Jesus of Suburbia

A lot of the young people in the One Life Project made reference to “filling a void” within themselves. As an addictions counselor, I hear about that emptiness a lot. It gets filled with all the wrong things because too often the right ones, despite being our birth right, were denied.

If we’re going to help kids not use drugs, we have to invest more fully in their well being. In so doing, we teach them to invest in themselves.

Show up. Listen without judgment. Communicate interest and caring about who they are – not just what they do or do not do.

The “void” they feel is the emptiness. Please stop blaming social media, music, and video games. They’re just symptoms

Help fill the emptiness. Invest in every child you meet.

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