Is Your Child at Risk?
(The following excerpt is taken from How to Say It to Your Kids, by Dr. Paul Coleman.)
Andy, age 12, is a great kid. He is likable, smart, and has a variety of interests. He knows about the dangers of drug and alcohol use. He attended a D.A.R.E. (Drug Awareness and Resistance Education) program at school and has no obvious inclination to try drugs. Is he at risk?
Yes. Despite the fact that his parents are together and there is no drug use in the home, other factors place him at risk. One is simply his age. Now in middle school and preparing for high school, he will meet many new classmates, some of whom use drugs. (According to the American Medical Association, the average age that 12- to 17-year-olds said they first tried alcohol was just under 13.) And as he approaches his teenage years, he increasingly needs to feel accepted by his peers.
Unfortunately, he rarely sees many of his friends from grade-school, and he has to make new friends. Will they be the right ones? Also, while his parents have religious beliefs, they show little effort to go to church or discuss spiritual and religious issues -- something that can reduce his vulnerability to later drug use.
Andy might survive adolescence without abusing drugs or alcohol. He certainly is at a lower risk than some other children. But a real risk is there. What can his parents do to help?
Things to consider
As children approach age 13, drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes become more readily available.
Inhalants (glue, solvents, cleaning chemicals) are easily accessible. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, about 25 percent of kids between the ages of 10 and 14 know someone who has used inhalants to get high. Children ages 10 and 11 have no real knowledge about the dangers of inhalants (which can cause brain damage or even sudden death), yet they are exposed to them.
Children who experiment with drugs before age 15 are seven times more likely to use drugs regularly.
Children who have been sexually abused, who do poorly in school, or who do not have enough parental influence are also at higher risk for substance abuse.
Discussions about drugs and alcohol must be repeated and become more sophisticated as the children get older or attend different schools.
One consistent finding is that the more often the family eats dinner together during the week, the less likely the children will use drugs. Parents who insist on family mealtime tend to have more orderly lives, take an active interest in their children's well-being, and are more influential. Mealtime is often the only time parents and kids actually talk about their lives in a calm manner. How often does your family eat together? Think about the changes that would be necessary to increase the frequency of family mealtime. Chances are those changes need to be made anyway.
If your family is too busy to eat together, too many things are being given priority over family unity.
How to Say It
Be the kind of parent that kids will feel free to talk to about any exposure they might have to drugs. Many children know that drugs are bad -- so bad that they might be afraid to mention any exposure they have had to their parents. "I heard a story about a child who was afraid to tell his parents that some other kids tried to get him to use drugs. He was afraid his parents would get mad at him. Drugs are so harmful that I want you to know you can come to me anytime to talk about what you have seen at school or with your friends."
"'No way! You just want me to get in trouble!'
"'You're crazy! I'm never going to use drugs!'
"'Forget it!' "'You're wasting your time. There is no way I'm going to try drugs or alcohol."
Remind your kids that they also need to walk away immediately. Getting into a discussion with a drug pusher may make it harder for them to resist.
What to Say if Your Child Asks if You Ever Did Drugs
Most experts advise telling the truth. I generally agree, but exceptions are possible. The goal is to keep your children away from drugs or at least increase the time it takes before they start experimenting. If you used drugs when you were younger and you believe it was a mistake, will telling your child improve the odds he will resist drug use? The answer depends on how well you know your child. If you have a good relationship with your child and there is a good deal of parental supervision, your child may be able to handle the truth.
You may feel ashamed and embarrassed, and you may not be the hero your kid thought you were but it can help. However, if your child tends to be impulsive or has been in trouble at school already, if there is little parental supervision between the hours of 4 and 6 P.M., if it is a single-parent family, or if your children's friends have been in trouble for using drugs or alcohol, think twice about telling the truth. You must also weigh the risk that your child will discover the truth from some other family member.
How Not to Say It
Rule of Thumb: Children need rules and tools. Teaching about drugs and alcohol and how to resist peer pressure without being clear about do's and don'ts (tools but no rules) is evading your responsibility to make clear what is right and wrong. Stating do's and don'ts without teaching about drugs and how to resist them (rules but no tools) is like sending your child into a danger zone unprepared.