For more than 10 years I’ve been working professionally to help people who are struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. Now, as a parent, I find myself considering how I’ll talk to my son about these substances in an effective way. It’s scary and intimidating, even for me! But take heart, we can have conversations with our children that help shape their future decisions in this area. Even more important, you can help them develop skills to make healthy choices, even in the face of peer pressure.
How Early Is Too Early?
Before age 5, talking about abstract concepts like drugs and alcohol may lead to more confusion than lasting positive effects.
You’ve got the power! However, it is helpful to begin speaking to kids about the power they have to make positive and healthy choices (food choices, activity choices, etc.). And when they make good choices, celebrate!
Know your substances. It’s also important to teach children about the potentially dangerous substances in their home (e.g. cleaning products, mouthwash, etc.) and communicate clearly and repeatedly that they should never consume anything that hasn’t been given to them by a trusted adult.
“Mommy, what are drugs?” Now is a great time to begin sharing simple, factual information about drugs and alcohol and how you feel about them. With kids, it’s best to stick to the present (e.g. drugs can slow you down in sports, alcohol can make you do embarrassing things, etc.). Talking about future consequences and addiction at this stage is likely to confuse.
Set clear expectations. You might consider statements like, “Our family doesn’t do drugs,” or “Only adults drink alcohol, and when they do, they are very careful.” Even though they often test them, children are very reassured by parents communicating clear and consistent boundaries about their behavior.
The media effect. Kids are bound to run across movie, TV, and other media characters who are shown smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or using drugs. Don’t let these moments pass you by — they are the perfect conversation starters. Get to know how your child perceives the character’s behavior — do they think it’s cool? Why? Are there any reasons it might not be cool?
There’s no quick fix. Unfortunately, many children who experiment with drugs and alcohol begin using them routinely to cope with other problems. Begin showing your kiddos that although the quick fixes temporarily relieve discomfort, they don’t solve problems. The earlier you can help them learn healthy coping skills, the less likely they’ll be to find solutions in substances.
Age 8 and Older:
Just Say No? Most of us from the D.A.R.E era know “Just Say No” is harder said than done, especially under peer pressure. Saying no, and saving face in social situations, is a skill. Help your child or teen develop a script for refusing offers of drugs or alcohol. A simple, “No thanks, my mom would kill me!” or “Nah, I’m not into that stuff” or “I’ve got soccer practice, see you later,” are all great approaches. Believe it or not, these are the same skills that are taught to adults struggling with addiction in rehabilitation centers. That said, the earlier you learn these, the better.
Communicate the consequences. As kids turn into tweens and teens, it will be important for them to know that if they choose to use drugs or alcohol, there will be negative consequences. Each family handles discipline differently. But no matter which consequence you choose, if your child does decide to experiment (or more), it’s important to have a discussion about why he or she made that choice. Simply delivering harsh punishment is likely to drive kids further into secrecy. Once you know the motivation, you can work together to develop a plan to make better choices next time.
Facts work better than fear. Kids of all ages love learning facts. Arming them with knowledge about drugs and alcohol doesn’t increase the likelihood they’ll use them. Rather, it’s likely to reduce some of the mystery and allure that leads kids and teens to experimentation with substances. Educate without attempting to terrify!
Encourage independent thinking. Before your kiddo is faced with expressing an opposing opinion on drugs or alcohol, it’s helpful to practice going “against the grain” with simpler decisions. Everyone likes chocolate ice cream best, but your kiddo is a strawberry lover? Encourage her to choose what she enjoys. Your son wants a Cabbage Patch doll more than a Tonka truck for his birthday? Go for it, buddy! Practicing being “you” early is important.
“Mom, did you ever do drugs?” Let me refer you to an excellent resource on handling this delicate question if the answer is “Yes.”
Help build healthy self-esteem and coping skills. As before, kids are most vulnerable to developing problems with drugs and alcohol when they don’t feel confident in themselves or their ability to handle challenging emotions. Building self-esteem and teaching coping skills begins from day one and never ends. Even if they would never say it aloud, your opinion is critically important to your children! Helping children to find healthy strategies for managing difficult emotions (e.g. talking to friends, exercise, art, listening to music, etc.) is a great way to help guard against drug and alcohol problems in the future.
Talk about it (even if you’re scared). This is a tough topic. It can feel awkward, scary and overwhelming. But you can do it! An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.