It isn’t always easy knowing how to talk to your children about the serious issues that could have a dangerous impact on their lives like drug and alcohol abuse. Many parents aren’t sure when they should bring up the topic, not to mention exactly how to approach it. But parents, have no fear — this guide is for you.
DON’T assume your child already knows the dangers of drug and alcohol use and abuse, or that they could never fall victim. A lot of kids think that you can only become addicted if you use a lot of a substance or use it repeatedly, but for some, all it takes is a single taste. Make sure your child understands that risk, and never brush off an instance of his or her using as a fluke.
DO start the conversation early. Parents of younger children might think they have years before they really need to discuss the dangers of drugs, but in fact, it’s never too early to start warning them. A good place to start is around the age of about 5; your child will be more receptive to your advice and guidance, and you can start somewhat small by discussing the safety around medications they take for colds or that they see you take for a headache. Discuss how all medicines — prescription and over-the-counter alike — come with risks and should be used with care. Let them know that for this reason, they should never take any kind of medicine without your guidance because it can be very dangerous. Don’t scare him or her, but do emphasize the seriousness of the matter.
Make sure to note that prescription medications can be especially dangerous. Your child should never take medications that aren’t prescribed to them. Explain that prescription drugs are much more powerful and come with more serious side effects, and that is why they require a doctor’s guidance. If you or your partner has any that your child may see you take regularly, go over the side effects. Explain that your doctor had many things to consider before ultimately deciding to give you that prescription and you must take it at only a certain dosage in order to minimize the risks. Emphasize that if anyone else took your prescription, it could be extremely dangerous, and for a child, it could even be life-threatening.
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DON’T be vague. Because you are an adult and have been familiar with the dangers of drugs and alcohol for many years, it’s easy to forget that your child has virtually no prior knowledge on the subject. Spell things out. Let him or her know that using substances is never OK no matter what, and that there will be strict consequences for breaking that rule. It doesn’t matter if their friends do it, if they see older family members do it, or if “just a sip” seems harmless. There is never an excuse for disobeying you on this matter, and if they argue you’re being overly-protective, remind them that as their parent it is your duty to protect them. Keeping them safe from the dangers of drugs may not be something they can understand right now, but one day they will appreciate your zero-tolerance policy.
DO address broken rules immediately. If you’ve caught your child in the act of using, or if you’ve found evidence that they’ve done so, don’t wait to address it. Research indicates that the earlier someone experiments with drugs, the more likely he or she is to become addicted. Confront your child the moment something is awry, and punish them as you and your partner deem fit.
Don’t forget to give your child a chance to explain, however. Though there is no excuse that will prevent punishment, it’s important that you understand what led him or her to disobey you. If they’re hanging out with a toxic group of friends that persuaded them to “just try it,” you need to know. If they’re feeling overwhelmed with school, you need to know. If they’re having a tough time adapting to a new home or living situation, you need to know. Let them know that it’s perfectly OK to have a tough time, but that they need to cope in healthy, safe ways. Explain that by using drugs or alcohol to reduce stress, they’re only creating new problems, and you can help them find better ways to overcome their challenges.
DO be honest. Your child is going to have questions about your past or current history with drugs and alcohol. Tell the truth. If you lie, you’ll kill all your credibility on the subject if your child ever finds out — and those kinds of secrets have a funny way of revealing themselves eventually. Instead, own up to whatever the truth is. If you did experiment in your youth, explain what a mistake it was. Even if you “got away” with it, you probably had some tough hangovers you had to hide from your parents. It could’ve been that a new friend insisted that drinking was the only way to be cool, and because of peer pressure, you gave in. Explain that as an adult, it’s easier for you to look back and realize what a silly mistake it was and how you regret it. Let your child know that you hope to prevent him or her from making the same kinds of errors, because in many ways, you were lucky that things didn’t go badly. For some, all it takes is one hit, one sip of a particular substance, and addiction can rear its ugly head and take over.
DO discuss the role of peer pressure. We all want to be liked, and when you’re a child, there’s a lot more pressure to be a certain way or do certain things. Discuss your own challenges with peer pressure, both as a child and today, and how you understand that sometimes it can be overwhelming. Explain that true confidence is being able to rise above the crowd, to be a leader instead of a follower, and anyone who attempts to tell them differently is likely envious that your child doesn’t feel the need to please others. Let them know it won’t always be easy to say no, but part of growing up is finding the strength to stand up for themselves. And keep things in perspective: most of their peers actually don’t use drugs or alcohol.
Role play peer pressure situations involving drugs and alcohol together and discuss it afterward. How did they feel? Would they feel confident saying no? What if it was their best friend? What if it was an older student they wanted to impress? Reiterate that it’s going to be a challenge they face time and time again, but it will get easier the more confident they get. Let them know that if they’re ever in a situation that makes them uncomfortable — for example, if he or she is at a party where everyone is underage drinking — you will always be available to come get them. It’s crucial that your child knows he or she can always come to you, and that you’ll recognize and appreciate their effort to break away from a risky situation.
DON’T make it a one-time conversation. The dangers of drugs and alcohol should be a recurring conversation with your child. After all, the pressures to experiment will likely only increase over time, so you must be proactive about prevention. However, don’t make it a regular lecture. Instead, aim to have a conversation and look for opportunities for it to happen organically. If you’re watching a movie together where a character recklessly abuses substances, discuss it afterward. What did your child think about it? Did they recognize how dangerous those behaviors were? Did the movie illustrate negative repercussions of those kinds of actions? If not, what could have happened? Make sure to point out that music, movies, and television tend to glamorize substance abuse; the reality is much, much grittier, and circumstances don’t always end up working out so nicely for those involved.
DO stay educated. Unfortunately, new designer drugs pop up quite regularly, so it’s important that you stay up-to-date on what’s out there and incorporate it into conversations with your child. You can reach out to local law enforcement offices to find out what’s especially popular in your area, as well as slang terms you should be aware of. Staying educated is an important part not only of addiction prevention for your child, it also solidifies your own credibility when discussing it.
DO know your child’s genetic risk. It’s important to be aware if you have a family history of addiction, because this often plays a significant role in your child’s potential to become addicted. Keep in mind that a family history of cocaine addiction doesn’t necessarily mean your child has only a predisposition for cocaine addiction — it increases his or her odds of becoming addicted to any substance.
DO keep all conversations about drug and alcohol abuse open. It’s important that all discussions remain a two-way conversation. Though you certainly want to be able to give your child the facts, don’t forget to ask him or her questions. What does he or she already know? Is there anything they don’t completely understand about the risks? Which drugs do they deem “less dangerous” and why? Have they ever found themselves tempted to use? Just make sure you’re asking questions and showing interest in your child’s thoughts and feelings rather than turning it into an interrogation. You want to create a dialogue now so that anytime an issue comes up in the future, your child has no hesitations about coming to you.
DO emphasize the negative consequences of drug and alcohol abuse. The repercussions of substance abuse range from painful withdrawal symptoms to the spread of chronic disease. It can even jeopardize your child’s chance at getting into their dream university, or passing a drug test for a job they really want. Go over both the long-term and short-term consequences of addiction, but be careful not to veer into over-the-top scare tactics. Fear-based education has been shown to be ineffective, and can even backfire completely. Give your child the facts about what could happen, but don’t entice them to prove you wrong by saying certain outcomes absolutely will happen.
DO consistently talk to your child about his or her mental health. There is a strong link between mental health issues and the tendency toward substance abuse. More than that, however, you should always be on the lookout for signs of teen or adolescent depression. Because of the changing hormonal balances children go through as they develop, it can be difficult to rely on your observations alone.
Talk to your child about his or her day each and every day. Ask what they did, how their schoolwork is going, and how their friends are. If it seems like there’s more going on than they’re letting on, let your child know that you’ll always be a listening ear without judgment. Be careful not to downplay anything that’s going on with them: it might be difficult to remember, but seemingly small fights with friends and other social issues can feel monumental to kids, especially teens, and the last thing that will help is being made to feel silly about it. Further, never underestimate the power of a family dinner. It’s a regular opportunity to talk to your child about what’s going on in his or her life, and it’s even been shown to reduce their likelihood of abusing drugs or alcohol.
You may not be able to control every action your child ever takes, but you can do everything in your power to be a positive influence. Keep the doors of communication open at all times, and look for every opportunity to remind your child that you love them and want to be there for them. If your child does slip up and get busted for using drugs or alcohol, express your disappointment and assign an appropriate punishment, but remind him or her that a single mistake won’t ever stop you from loving them.
Finally, if your child splits his or her time between your house and elsewhere, be sure that you regularly follow-up with your co-parent to be sure the rules are consistent. After a certain point, all you can do is send the same clear message — that drugs and alcohol are dangerous and abuse can compromise their future — and trust that they’ll come to you if they ever struggle to make the right choice.
- KidsHealth.org — Talking to Your Child About Drugs
- Live Science — The Drug Talk: 7 New Tips for Today's Parents
- National Institute On Drug Abuse — Emerging Trends and Alerts
- Web MD — Teen Drug Slang: Dictionary for Parents
- SAMHSA — TALKING TO YOUR KIDS about prescription drug abuse
- National Institute On Drug Abuse — Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction
- West Virginia Department Of Health & Human Services — Why Scare Tactics Don’t Work
- Dartmouth University — DUAL DIAGNOSIS: MENTAL ILLNESS AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE
- Healthline — Adolescent Depression
- TIME — Do Family Dinners Really Reduce Teen Drug Use?