Alcoholism & Addiction

When to Start Talking to Your Kids About Alcohol and Drugs

As parents of young children, you might think that any discussion about drugs and alcohol is a long way off. Think again. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), more than 50 percent of young people have used an illegal drug by the time they leave high school. The average age when a child first uses alcohol is 11. For marijuana, the average age is 12.

For many children, curiosity about alcohol and drugs occurs much sooner. They may ask, “Why does Uncle Johnny drink so much?” If they see you falling asleep in front of the TV night after night with a half-dozen empty beer bottles, they will associate this action with normal behavior.

Talk With Your Children: The Earlier The Better

Experimentation with alcohol and drugs generally begins in grade school. Communication with your children should begin as young as age 5. No, you shouldn’t go into great detail about specific drugs and their effects on the body. Your young child won’t be able to comprehend all that information. But you can make a comment when you see someone smoking or drinking on TV or in a movie, or in a public place, or even at family gatherings. Something to the effect that drinking and smoking can hurt your body. Another appropriate message is that abusing medicines is just as dangerous as using street drugs.

As your child gets older, you can use more age-appropriate details. With a 12-year-old, for example, you can discuss common street names for marijuana and crack, how to identify them if other children at school have them and try to get them to take them, and what these drugs do to your body.

With teens, it’s important that they know all the risks about alcohol, street drugs and abuse of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Much of teen experimentation with drugs and alcohol is a result of peer pressure. This is a powerful influence that you have to overcome. Your constant presence and reassurance of parental love and responsibility is your best weapon against teen peer pressure.

Educate Yourself First, Then Your Child

Before you can give information to your child about the dangers and risks of alcohol and drugs, you first have to educate yourself. Find out what’s going on in the drug scene – before your children do. Highly publicized celebrity episodes of binge drinking, of alcohol or drug-related problems, relapses and recovery are great starting points for discussion. You can point out that these things can happen to anyone, to celebrities, rich people, and even the neighbor down the street. Talk about how there are consequences for actions. Explain to them that being famous – or not – is no excuse for this kind of bad behavior.

Attend discussions or lectures in your community on alcohol and drugs. Ask questions of the experts and become as knowledgeable as you can about the latest drug and alcohol trends in your community, especially new designer drugs which may be more potent and toxic.

Research alcohol and drug use on the Internet at such sites as www.drugabuse.org and www.abovetheinfluence.com and www.nida.nih.gov and follow the links for additional resources.

Tips to Help

• Listen to Your Children – If your young children feel that you really listen to them when they discuss how they feel or things that are bothering them, they will feel more comfortable talking with you about drugs and alcohol. The last thing you want is for your child to not tell you something because they feel that you don’t really hear them or don’t care.

• Promote Good Decision-Making – Children need to develop the skills to make good decisions on their own. This is a gradual and ongoing effort that you can encourage. An 8-year-old should be able to decide whether a couple of friends or more can be invited to a sleepover or a party. When the child is 12, encourage the decision to choose between playing a sport at school or joining the school band or other activity. As children become more confident making good decisions, you and your children will be more secure about them making responsible choices when it comes to the issues of drugs and alcohol.

• Discuss the Importance of Good Friends – Your children need to know what a good friend really is. It isn’t someone who tries to talk them into smoking a joint or doing a tab of ecstasy or drinking beer behind the bleachers. When so-called friends attempt to lure your children into doing things they know is wrong (as a result of family guidelines and education), instruct your children to steer clear of these non-friends.

• Build Self-Esteem – Whenever your children accomplish chores, give them praise. Praise helps to build self-esteem, especially in younger children. If there’s a mistake, talk about the action and not the person. If your child makes errors in math homework, don’t say, “That was a dumb mistake.” Instead, say something like, “Let’s look at this again. I think there might be another way to solve the problem.”

• Make Family Rules Clear – Your children need to know that there is no drug use allowed in the family and that children in this family are not allowed to drink alcohol. And no medicine is permitted unless Mom or Dad says you can take it. Let them know that there are consequences for breaking the rules. Depending on the infraction and the age of the child, this could be a suspension of privileges such as no driving, dating, and no phone use. Be sure that you listen to your child, however. If it was a mistake, a one-time occurrence, and your child expresses a sincere resolve never to do it again, you probably can let it go with a warning. But repeated breaking of the rules should have consequences that you as parents enforce.

• Do What You Say – Set a good example. Don’t drink after work. Don’t ever let your children see you intoxicated. Don’t pass around liquor to guests. Serve non-alcoholic beverages instead. Don’t pop pills for every minor ailment. Your children are watching and absorbing everything you do.

• Repeat Messages – One-time discussions won’t do the job. You need to repeat messages about the risks and dangers of drug and alcohol use to your children throughout their growing years. Recognize that your actions are also a repetition of your message – if they coincide. If not, the disconnection can undo any positive reinforcement. Also be sure not to preach. Be informative, be firm, and be a reassuring presence in their lives.

• Make Time In Your Life – You need to be around to take care of your responsibilities with your children. Many young children first gravitate toward experimentation with drugs and alcohol because a parent simply isn’t there. This may mean cutting back on some of your overtime at work, or it could mean including your children in activities you may have done by yourself. If you regularly go to the gym after work, take your child along on some occasions and/or do other things together – just you and your child.

• Love Your Children – One of the best and most enduring things you can do for your children is to demonstrate and let them know that you love them. You will always love them, no matter what. You are their parent and that is why you are always looking out for them.

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