The Dangerous Cult of the Teenage Years

by Dr. Rami Kaminski MD

Teenage years are actually a cult. It lures the 10-13-year-old, just out of childhood, with its rumored mysterious, exciting, and subversive nature. By 12 one gets admitted and starts a seven-year journey, unlike any other period of life. Adolescence is better understood as an inverted pyramid cult. The guru is the group, the boundaries are the age group and like other cults all the rest are the others who are unenlightened, understand nothing and are worthy of scorn and ridicule. The cult develops rituals, codes of behavior and dress, cultural interests and morals. The adults, in particular parents and teachers and any adult not considered cool, are unsuspecting fools or at times the enemy.

Starting in the 1970s a new powerful and ominous factor joined this setting: the increasing administration of psychoactive medications to children. By 12 every teenager in the US knows someone who is taking pills prescribed by a doctor: either amphetamines, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety or all of the above. Alcohol, due to the unfortunate, easily circumvented age restriction gives any adolescence that drinks an illicit thrill. We made psychoactive meds, that should have been prescribed judiciously, and sparingly, into a common everyday thing for teenagers. On the other hand, we made the ruinous, addictive and easily available alcohol, into an alluring means for rebellion and social lubricant for socially awkward teenagers (which most are).

It seems that this tide is growing rapidly and the sinister addition of opiate pain killers into the mix, has brought growing numbers of death by OD. More adolescents die of unintended OD than those who were actually suicidal. An adolescent who dies from OD did not show any depressive or suicidal warning signs because there were none. They did not want to commit suicide: they wanted to have fun!

In that climate, no wonder that many parents are trying to make their adolescent children to aware of the dangers of dysfunction, addiction, and overdose. But trying to isolate a teenager from a peer cult is often met with rebellion and further distance from the parent. The guru is the group and the primary loyalty of most adolescents is to their peer group.

We, who have worked (or were) with substance abusing teenagers and young adults, identify the starting point about 2 to 3 years before any adult has noticed. It a time when loyalty to the group outplays responsible behavior. Many teenagers know that a peer is suicidal or selfharming and yet they do not want to “snitch” on the friend to a responsible adult? It is hard to predict who would go on to become a substance abuser. it is often the ones who are quiet and sensitive and not the brash risk taker. That latency period when the experimentation is more hesitant infrequent and secret, is the perfect time to intervene. There is no biological or cultural rule that destines someone into becoming an addict. In fact, many addicts, find it possible to recover and have meaningful life of sobriety. But prevention at the right time, by the right approach with the right professionals is the best, least destructive path.

Adolescents need to be approached by people they can respect and do not threaten their affiliation to their peer group. We know how to do this. Our ambassadors into their inner sanctum are young “hip” cool people. They all come from the same background, often graduated the same schools, and struggled with addiction until they chose sobriety. They can deeply understand how the youngster feels having been at the same place not that long ago. They can share their stories of addiction and redemption in a way that would resonate with the teenagers rather than alienate them. While they can take over the most contentious struggles, such as drug testing, they know how to straddle the “generation gap” and help the parents to better communicate with their evasive often prickly teen.