VOICES: Dr Nora Volkow

<h5><strong>Director National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health (NIDA)</strong></h5>
Director National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health (NIDA)

“One of the most devastating things for the development of the human brain is social neglect. So one of the worst things you can do to a child is not to provide human physical touch and support that is necessary.”

Are children more in danger now during the COVID-19 pandemic?

During COVID-19, there's a greater risk of withdrawal and anxiety, and those are factors that can push children into taking drugs because young people often take drugs because they want to feel better. Now, in the US, anxiety, and depression have significantly increased amongst young people, and tragically we have also seen an increase in the number of suicide and suicide attempts. This is not only because of the pandemic; it is a development we have seen for two decades. It has to do with a sense of a loss of purpose, the feeling that their relationships don’t have the strength that they should in order to support them. So I can not overemphasize how important families are to the well-being of their children!

Is listening to children one of the solutions to prevent substance abuse?

Listening to children is absolutely necessary to protect them and to help them develop the skills to grow healthy. How do you know what your child’s needs are if you are not willing to listen to them? I think this is true for any human relationship, but it is even more so when we are dealing with a relationship between children and parents. There is a sense that parents know better, that they can understand what is happening to the child, and then they don’t listen to them! And that is a big mistake. I think in this simplicity of the ‘Listen First’campaign lies its brilliancy: the notion of something that seems so simple, that when a parent is with their child, listening will give them that perspective that the child needs.

Today children are spending more time online. Are certain children more in danger online? And how can parents protect them?

Parents should never worry that they are “too caring”. It is much more important for children to feel confident, to know that someone believes in and cares about them; that is crucial and fundamental. Unfortunately, with parents who have fewer resources and are forced to leave the house to work, their children are often left alone at home in front of the computer, and that can increase the risk for these children. But even if you have the resources, you have to be aware that there are some children that are at a higher risk to be harmed online. Children who may struggle with a mental disorder, such as depression, anxiety, or have lower esteem, can lead them to engage in communications that could be harmful. The involvement of parents is crucial, but also the alertness that some children are at a higher risk. That is why ‘Listen First’ is so relevant because by listening to the child the parents can learn not only what they communicate but also how they communicate it. By listening, we can understand the problems and intervene early on.

The Science of Care – Is there a science of parenting?

We have learned that one of the most devastating things for the development of the human brain is social neglect. So one of the worst things you can do to a child is to not provide physical touch. This is not unique to humans; studies with animals have shown that lack of initial physical contact between the mother and newborn has long-lasting and sometimes irreversible consequences in the brain signals in certain regions, making them more vulnerable to stress. So yes, science has documented that emotional support is fundamental for the human brain to develop and grow properly!

What are the most important interventions for the prevention of substance use?

The first lines of protection are the parents and the support they provide to their children. But if you don’t have the resources to pay attention to your children because you have to work two or three jobs to survive, that is going to put those children at a higher risk of substance use and mental disorder illnesses. We need to provide economic support that improves the economic situation for families. Interventions for low socioeconomic background families to show the parents how to support their children or provide them with education significantly improve the outcome and decrease substance use in those children later on. And importantly those interventions have a transgenerational effect.

Do you think technology and advances in science can be helpful in this regard?

Absolutely. We have seen with the pandemic how virtual technology has enabled our communications, and it is only the beginning. I am very excited about the opportunity to provide high-quality education to children because whilst parents are the first level of defense, the schools provide a second level of defense. I am especially excited about the opportunities to improve children’s lives in countries that are very poor and where they otherwise would not have access to quality education.

When you were growing up did you feel supported to stay in science?

I had an incredibly supportive family, and that helped a lot! I met some very inspiring teachers, who inspired me because of their unique thinking and challenging of dogma, and that is something that has stayed with me.

Read More Voices

Made possible with the generous support of France.