It’s never too early to start talking to your children about substance abuse. The general consensus is that you should start these conversations as soon as children start asking question about drugs, drug related phrases or when they happen to catch glances of this activity in social media or in mainstream media.This holds true even if your kids seem too young as it’s never to soon to be talking to kids about drugs or alcohol.
Society’s liberalization of substance use has become so prevalent, it’s not uncommon for children to be exposed to it in Elementary school. In fact, by this time, many children witness classmates smoking, drinking and trying drugs.
Here’s a handy guide to help familiarize with you appropriate discussions for children based on their age group. No matter his or her age, you should never show reluctance to talk to your children about substance abuse and addiction prevention.
- Start by teaching your child that she should not drink out of random glasses. What looks like apple juice or orange juice at a party where adults are present could contain alcohol. You can also be very clear about whom she can trust to give her medications. Explain that even though some medication may taste like candy, medicine is only acceptable from Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa or other approved guardians. Talking to kids about drugs or alcohol should focus on prevention at this stage, and not on fear-mongering.
Kindergarten through Third Grade
- Talking to kids about drugs, tobacco, alcohol, and other substance as this staged should be factual and focused on the present.
- Future consequences don’t mean much to children at this age. Talk about immediate effects of drugs: “It’s not as easy to shoot a hoop or finish a puzzle while high on marijuana.” “Smoking causes bad breath.”
- Talk to your kids about the drug-related messages they receive through advertisements, news media, and entertainment sources. Discuss messages that conflict with what you’ve taught them. Point out when TV shows or movies glamorize abuse of drugs and alcohol.
- Encourage your kids to ask you questions about the messages they learn in other places. And remember to ask them how they feel about what they’ve heard – you’ll learn a great deal about what they’re thinking.
- Don’t put your child’s friends down. Underscore your child’s values and the importance of making decisions that are consistent with these values.
Fourth Grade through Sixth Grade
- Talking to kids about drugs at this stage should segue into laying some ground rules – and that you’ll enforce the consequences if rules are broken.
- Pre-teens can understand the reason for rules and appreciate having limits in place. Research shows that kids are less likely to use drugs and alcohol when their parents have established a pattern of setting clear rules and consequences.
- Act out scenes with your child where people offer him drugs or alcohol.
- Equip your child with tools to get out of sticky situations and he will be more likely to actually get out of those situations. Kids who don’t know what to say or how to get away are more likely to give in to peer pressure. Let your child know he can use you as an excuse: “No, my mom would kill me if I smoked.” Urge him not to continue friendships with kids who have encouraged alcohol and drug use.
- Tell your child what makes him so special
- Puberty can play tricks with a child’s self-esteem. At times, your child may move from feeling good about himself and his life to feeling insecure, doubtful and pressured. Kids need positive reinforcement about their lives and who they are as individuals all the time – not just when they bring home an A.
This style of talking to kids about drugs should continue on this course from the fourth through the sixth grade. You can also add these additional age appropriate strategies:
- It’s never a good idea to volunteer information about your past drinking experiences; however, if your teen asks and you did drink alcohol underage, respond honestly by saying that you wish you had made a different decision. Do not describe your escapades in detail.
- Talk to your child about how drinking alcohol is an adult privilege and responsibility. Also explain that as an adult, it’s okay for you to enjoy a glass of wine with a meal as long as it’s in moderation. Clarify that it’s never alright for adults to abuse alcohol – even though it’s legal for them to drink.
- Tell your teen that alcohol is a drug and reinforce what it can do to their mind and body.
- Teens are extremely concerned with their physical appearance. If they believe a substance will impair their looks and health, they may be less likely to be tempted. Tell them about a time you saw a friend or acquaintance get sick from alcohol – reinforce how completely disgusting it was.
- Don’t just leave your child’s substance abuse prevention to his school.
- Topics you might want to talk about with your teen include: the connection between alcohol, tobacco, and other drug consumption during pregnancy and birth defects in newborns; the potentially deadly effects of combining drugs; that anyone can become a chronic user or addicted and that even trying a drug or using it occasionally can have serious and permanent consequences.
- Emphasize what alcohol/drug use can do to your teen’s future. Teens look ahead and think about their future. Discuss how substance use can ruin your teen’s chance of getting into the college she’s been dreaming about, landing the job she’s perfect for etc.
- Use the news. If you see a news story about an alcohol-related car accident, talk to your teen about all the victims that an accident leaves in its wake.
- Positive reinforcement matters. Compliment and encourage your teen for all the things she does well and for the positive choices she makes. Let them know they are seen and appreciated. And let them know how you appreciate what a good role model they are to siblings or for other kids in the community. Teens still care what their parents think. Let them know how deeply disappointed you would be if they engaged in underage drinking.
- Talking to kids about drugs, alcohol and tobacco use should be a fairly regular practice and you should always set your expectations.
- Every day, they may be faced with “re-deciding” about substance abuse. Talking to kids about drugs should continue through the teen years and even into their college years, where the likeliness of peer pressure and experimentation can become overwhelming.
- Scenarios change as your child ages. Continue to discuss different possible scenarios so they are prepared with an action plan if any arise.
Review the Following Additional Links for More Support
Above The Influence
Partnership For Drug Free Kids
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s (SAMHSA) Too Smart to Start
The Search Institute
CASA at Columbia’s Study on Importance of Family Dinners