Yeshiva Prof: Talk to Kids about Addiction

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Community members listen to Dr. David Pelcovitz talk about addiction and children at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC. Photo by Erica Rimlinger.

“We are not here to fearmonger,” Dr. David Pelcovitz told a crowd of 400 that packed the auditorium of the Weinberg Park Heights JCC on Jan. 9. The topic of the evening’s conversation, sponsored by Chayeinu Baltimore, could arguably spark fear for any parent: addiction and its increasing prevalence in the Baltimore Jewish community.

“Addiction is facing the Orthodox community the same way it’s affecting everyone else,” said Esti Ziffer, a founding board member of Chayeinu. Ziffer said the group brought in Pelcovitz to help parents gain a better understanding of what children are exposed to in school and when they should speak to their children about addiction.

A new organization, Chayeinu aims to educate and prevent addiction in the community.

Pelcovitz, the Gwendolyn & Joseph Straus chair in Jewish education at Yeshiva University, told the JT he’s frequently asked by parents if this is really a problem, or if parents may be putting ideas into kids’ heads by talking about it.

“But the reality is, some of the people I’ve spoken to … are people who’ve lost children,” he said. “It’s all too heartbreaking. In recent months there have been a number of overdoses in this area. It’s real. There’s a tremendous amount of strength in the Baltimore community, but there’s risk too, like everywhere else.”

Larry Ziffer, Esti’s father-in-law who is also a founding board member of Chayeinu, introduced the speakers and told the story of an unsupervised 12-year-old boy who sneaked 14 glasses of Moscato wine at an event.

“What if this 12-year-old had a genetic predisposition to addiction, and this was just the start of a lifetime of struggle?” Larry asked. “I have spoken with heartbroken parents, siblings and even recovering addicts, and they all tell stories that start like this one.”

In his talk, Pelcovitz touted the preventive powers of behavior modeling, clear and present communication and limit-setting. “More love. More limits,” he told the group.

Addictive substances, he told parents, are not limited to drugs and alcohol, citing video games as a possible addiction. He warned parents that vaping — the smokeless, odorless technology — delivers more nicotine than cigarettes in a way that’s easier to hide.

Examine your own behavior and relationships with addictive substances and technology, Pelcovitz advised parents. He said a major complaint of kids is that their parents are on their phones too much and not really present with them. “They describe their parents as complaining to them that they’re always online,” he said. “But research shows parents, in fact, are far more likely than kids to be looking down and to lack that connection.”

“In recent months there have been a number of overdoses in this area. It’s real. There’s a tremendous amount of strength in the Baltimore community, but there’s risk too, like everywhere else.” — Dr. David Pelcovitz

Pelcovitz asserted that this may lead to kids having an “inner emptiness,” a risk factor he said is tied to addiction. Lack of proper supervision also increases addiction risk, he said.

In approaching the discussion, Pelcovitz advised parents to communicate in a balanced and clear way. “Nagging and lecturing never works,” he said.

“Strike while the iron is cold,” he suggested. “Talk to them. Hear what they have to say. Help them develop ways of saying no. Give them active strategies. Ask what they’d say.”

If a child is caught using alcohol or drugs, parents should not confront them when they’re angry, Pelcovitz said, but tell the child this is serious and there will be consequences. Parents should set up a time for discussion, and use it as an opportunity to see if the child is experimenting or if there is a bigger problem. Then, parents should enforce consequences that are “unemotional, logical and brief,” he said. He told parents children need — and want — limits, despite their insistence to the contrary.

Dr. David Pelcovitz of Yeshiva University. (Photo provided)

Mordechai Gottlieb, Pelcovitz’s nephew who lives in Baltimore, came to see his uncle speak. Gottlieb has taken his uncle’s advice with his own children. “Kids are looking for limits and guidance,” he said. “They really are interested in what parents have to say.”

Dr. Beth Loeb, a mother of three including two teenagers, took notes throughout the talk. “It’s nice to have somebody give suggestions about how to approach a conversation with adolescents. I thought that was very valuable,” she said. “I thought at the Shabbos table we could go over this.”

Esti Ziffer said Chayeinu invited Pelcovitz to bring the issue to light.

“What we’re hearing from the experts is that stigma is the greatest barrier to getting help and getting treatment,” she said. “That is a big part of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to help remove stigma.”

She hopes this talk will challenge the assumption that an addict looks like “a homeless person, someone you can’t relate to.” It could really be anyone, she said. “Your doctor, your lawyer, your accountant, your neighbor, your close relative. No one’s ever woken up one morning and decided to become a professional addict. It’s never been chosen. It’s a situation that people need help in.”

Rabbi Menachem Goldberger, who introduced Pelcovitz, told attendees that the community can help by removing shame.

“When a person who has a problem with addiction knows they’re living in a community which wants them to get better and offers them the services to do so,” he said, “we’re moving toward refuah. We’re moving toward a better place.”

Erica Rimlinger is a Towson-based freelance writer.

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