Making Connections: What the Science of Early Childhood Development Has to Tell us About Adult Addiction

There is a lot in the news these days about child development, with proposals to improve early learning in the US moving up the national agenda. There has also been some recent attention paid in the news media to the issue of addiction, with discussion of new treatment approaches. While these two issues are in the public discussion, they tend to occupy discrete spaces in the discourse. These issues are rarely, if ever, brought together. So what does child development have to do with addiction?

For the last five years, the FrameWorks Institute has been working with the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative on this important question by exploring the power of the science of early childhood development to open up new ways of thinking about the causes of and effective solutions for addiction issues.

Our research has shown that experts think about addiction as a brain-based, neurobiological phenomenon that arises because of a complex interaction of genetic and environmental factors. By contrast, non-experts apply a set of highly patterned cultural models in thinking about the causes of and treatments for addiction, such as the assumption that addiction results from a lack of will power, or that addiction involves only a narrow set of substances. Our research has shown that these deeply held cultural models inhibit people’s ability to incorporate scientific principles into how they think about addiction.

FrameWorks researchers have tested a series of frame elements—including values and Explanatory Metaphors—to see whether public understandings, attitudes, and support for evidence-based policies can be increased, shifted and expanded. This research has revealed a set of values that move people away from the idea that the addict him or herself is narrowly responsible for causing and treating addiction. Instead, these values focus people’s attention on  contextual and systems-level understandings of responsibility, leading to greater support for policies such as health-worker training, which experts agree is a critical reform.

We have also tested a series of Explanatory Metaphors and found that three metaphors have the potential to productively channel thinking in Alberta on addiction issues:

“Brain Fault Lines” helps people understand the potential developmental causes of addiction and adopt a preventative approach to this issue;

Comparing the risk/reward system to a “Reward Dial” helps make the mechanics of that system and its role in addiction more easily thinkable;

And “Redirecting the River” helps people recognize key features of effective addiction treatment—that effective treatment begins early, is on-going and involves the efforts of a diverse set of professionals.

FrameWorks has used these tools, together with other frame elements that explain key principles from the science of early childhood development, to construct a Core Story of the Developmental Roots of Addiction. We are currently working with the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative to train researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and advocates to use this story and the broader theory of framing on which it rests to reframe public thinking on these issues.

By looking to crucial periods of brain development, we can improve treatments and actually prevent addiction before it starts.

 

 

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