The Younger the Better
While some parents take the attitude that there's nothing wrong with a little experimentation, many more would prefer that their children stay away from cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol completely. If avoidance is part of your long-term plan, start establishing your beliefs early. (If your teen is already in his mid-teens, start talking about your beliefs anyway. It's late, but not too late.)
If you use alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drugs, your children are more likely to use them, too, so begin by being a good role model. Some parents use this as an opportunity to change their own habits. Your kids may have been nagging you to give up smoking for years, and reducing your alcohol consumption isn't a bad idea either. (If you're using illegal drugs, get professional help.)
Drinking in moderation at all times is important, and keeping it in context is, too. A parent who comes home from work announcing, “I had a bad day. I need a stiff drink,” is showing a teen that alcohol will make him feel better and will also help “solve” the bad day.
Here are some other attitudes you should model:
- With smoking, you'd ideally like to invoke the two Ds: Dangerous (for your health) and Disgusting (to be around—who likes to have smoke blown in their face?). Even if a favorite grandmother smokes, the health dangers are clear, and she might even aid the cause by talking about how she would quit if she could.
- The dangers of drugs are also well known, and from the very beginning, your children should be taught that there is nothing acceptable about them.
- Drinking is a more difficult issue because it's so prevalent in our society. If you condemn teen drinking, what do you say if you want to have a beer with dinner one night? While there are additional tips concerning alcohol, your best general approach is to say that drinking in moderation is acceptable for adults, and that no one of any age should drink and drive.
Because all three of these substances can lead to addiction, you should also point out to your kids that once you start, these habits are difficult to kick. (Statistics show that teens are more likely to start smoking or drinking if they believe that it's easy to stop.)
Keeping Communication Open
Thirty-three percent of nearly 200,000 students surveyed in the PRIDE National Survey in 1995 (and reported in literature produced by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD), said that their parents often do not set clear rules. And half said they are not disciplined routinely when they break the rules.
In addition to being a good role model, keep the avenues of communication between you and your teen open on these issues. Here are some ways to bring up the topic without sounding like you're about to give a lecture:
- Drinking and drugs are often a focus of some of the popular dramas kids follow on television. If you sometimes watch TV with your teen, then you may be able to use an appropriate television segment to discuss your teen's opinion on drinking or drugs, and to convey your opinion as well.
- If Uncle Steve “ties one on” at the family reunion and proceeds to dance around with a lampshade on his head, you have the perfect opportunity to talk about why one shouldn't drink to excess.
- The newspaper is, unfortunately, full of stories of drug overdoses and the consequences of drunk driving. You can use these stories as a basis for discussion. (A local story, or one your teen might identify with, is ideal.) You might also want to mention celebrities who have had problems with drinking or drug abuse.
When you talk, be matter of fact; don't lecture and don't use scare tactics, which are meaningless to teens. (“How do you know I'll get lung cancer when I'm old?” is a likely response from a 13-year-old.) Also, resist condemning your teen's friends whom you suspect may be smoking or involved in drinking or drugs. Negative comments immediately put a teen on the defensive; however, there's nothing wrong with reflecting appropriate concern.
Be sure to listen to your teen's comments. Her remarks may give you guidelines as to what educational gaps you need to fill (she may think one beer has no effect on her) or you may be relieved to find that she has little interest in these substances—at this point. (Keep checking in as interests change; it's good to tune in on this now and then.)