Iceland Knows How to Keep Kids Off Drugs & Alcohol


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Finding a way to prevent teens and tweens from using drugs and alcohol is a concern almost every parent faces -- worldwide. One country thinks it's found the solution. Two decades ago, teens in Iceland were among Europe's heaviest drinkers. Today, the opposite is true. What's the Nordic island nation's secret? The key is so smart and obvious -- and focuses on pursuing "natural highs." Intrigued? 

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Here's how it all came about: Harvey Milkman, an American psychology professor who teaches at Reykjavik University during part of the year, explained the line of thinking to Mosaic: "People can get addicted to drink, cars, money, sex, calories, cocaine -- whatever. The idea of behavioral addiction became our trademark ... Why not orchestrate a social movement around natural highs: around people getting high on their own brain chemistry -- because it seems obvious to me that people want to change their consciousness -- without the deleterious effects of drugs."

It makes perfect sense, but how do you implement it across an entire country?  

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While working in Iceland with University of Iceland researcher Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir, the pair helped establish an initiative: Youth in Iceland. The program worked closely with schools and parents across income levels to ensure that kids were getting quality time with family as well as participating in enriching and fulfilling activities. A curfew was put in place that prohibited children aged between 13 and 16 from being outside after 10 p.m. during winter and midnight during summer -- a rule that is still in effect today.

At the same time, state funding was increased for organized sports, music, art, dance, and other activities, which allowed teens from families across all income brackets to participate and be part of a group, while feeling good about themselves. Additionally, in Reykjavik, where a third of Iceland's population resides, families were given a "Leisure Card" that helped defray the cost of recreational activities for each child. 

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What an amazing idea, right? Just last week a mom told me she had to stop sending her child to gymnastics because it became too costly. I'm sure she's not alone. Rising costs and membership fees can definitely be a deterrent when it comes to joining a team, taking a class, or even learning to play an instrument. And yet, all of these are so important for a child's development. Not only do you gain skills and confidence, but you also learn what it means to be part of a team. 

Rather than turning to drugs and alcohol for stress release, the youth in Iceland sought out the "natural high" they got from their activities.

It's so true that things you might do to improve your physical well-being positively impact your mental health as well. Plus, if you establish good habits in your youth, you're more likely to carry them with you into adulthood -- especially if they're ones you enjoy. Finding a sport, game, or recreational activity that brings you fulfillment and peace of mind is a gift that benefits you for a lifetime.

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As my grandmother loved to say, "Idleness is the devil's workshop" -- meaning boredom and isolation often play a role in tweens' and teens' going down a bad path. 

Now, of course, if money were no object, it would be amazing to test this out in countries worldwide, but considering how small Iceland is (330,000 compared with 325 million people in the US), it could be a stretch to hope that this concept comes to America anytime soon.

But ask any mom who's battled to save her son or daughter from drugs and/or alcohol addiction and she'll tell you that the benefit would outweigh the cost by far.

Even if it isn't something that the government would sponsor and get behind, these findings are definitely ones all moms and dads can take to heart. From spending a bit more quality time with kids to keeping them active and engaged, an ounce of prevention can go an awfully long way.   

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