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How to Say It: Drugs and Alcohol

Talking to your kids about drugs and alcohol can be tough.
By: Paul Coleman, Psy.D.

How to Say It: Drugs and Alcohol

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.

Smart talk

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."

  • "I want you to know a secret: When a parent gets mad because his child is caught with drugs, the parent is really very afraid. He is scared because he knows that his child is at great risk for harming or killing himself because of drugs."
  • "Tell me what you have heard on the bus or at school or in the neighborhood about kids using drugs or alcohol."
  • "If you wanted to get some marijuana or beer, do you know how you would get it?"
  • Teach appropriate ways that kids can say no to peer pressure. A child may believe that drug use is wrong but still be intimidated by peers. Rehearse assertive skills so your child has practice and more confidence in her ability to say no. "Here are some ways you can say no to kids who want you to use drugs:
    "'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.
  • Praise your child for not trying drugs or alcohol or for resisting the temptation. "I'm sure that if you really wanted to, you could have tried some drugs or beer by now. I am so proud of you for doing the right thing. It isn't easy to say no when you see other kids trying it, but you showed that you can say no."

    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.

  • "Yes, when I was in high school (or college), I did try marijuana, and I drank a lot of beer. I was stupid to have done that. I risked getting in a car accident and killing myself or someone else. I'm ashamed to tell you the truth, but I'm telling you so that I can convince you that using drugs or alcohol is dangerous and wrong."
  • "I once told you I never used drugs, but you just overheard me talk-ing to Uncle Pete about a time I did use drugs. I lied to you, and I probably shouldn't have. I did it because it scares me to think you might someday want to try drugs. I didn't want you to think that drug use isn't risky because I managed to end up okay. Drug use is very risky. It can make you do poorly in school, it can get you arrested, and it can cause you to steal money or hurt yourself seriously."

    How Not to Say It

  • "I know you may want to experiment someday, but be careful. Drug abuse begins by experimenting." Some parents believe that in order to get with the "real world" they must surrender to the idea that drug experimentation is inevitable and focus instead on how to resist continued drug use. Hogwash. Drug experimentation is not inevitable. The risk of experimentation does increase with age but is not a sure thing. Be firm that experimentation is wrong and risky.

  • "You shouldn't be hanging around those other kids if you know they have used drugs or alcohol." If your child's friends use drugs or alcohol, then your child must not be able to see them. Period. But the above comment is phrased in a way that makes the parent sound weak instead of firm. The parent is using a teaching style but should be using a do's and don'ts style. Saying "You shouldn't..." is not the same as saying "You can't..." or "I won't allow . . ." While you may not be able to enforce that rule when your child is at school, your child should never be in doubt about the firmness of your feelings.

  • "If you ever drink beer, I want you to do it at home, not anywhere else. At least that way I know where you are." You are caving in. You are saying that beer drinking is acceptable. That is not a message a preteen or teen should hear.

    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.

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