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Talking to Your Kids about Drugs and Alcohol: It’s Never Too Early or Too Late

Talking to Your Kids about Drugs and Alcohol

As parents, our children’s safety is our top concern and never far from our minds. That instinct only grows stronger as they enter their pre-teen and adolescent years, when the temptations and dangers become more serious and kids often push back against our authority.

The discussions we have with our children about the high-stakes dangers of drugs and alcohol can be especially difficult. We may fear putting ideas into their heads, and they may complain about our perceived nosiness. Although it’s never too late to talk about substance use and abuse with our children, starting those discussions at a young age helps keep the communication open and equips them with the tools they need to resist temptation.

“We avoid having these conversations because we’re afraid it’s going to spark their curiosity,” says Latrice Dailey, an adolescent counselor at Beacon Recovery, a UAB Medicine-affiliated outpatient substance abuse treatment program for adults and teens age 13 to 18. “But the curiosity – and often the opportunity to use substances – is already there.”

Below are some suggestions for discussing drugs and alcohol with your kids at various ages.

Early Childhood

The years between preschool through second grade offer convenient opportunities to discuss drugs and alcohol. For example, if your child has an ear infection and is prescribed an antibiotic or is taking an over-the-counter pain reliever, that’s a great time to talk about medications. You might explain why the doctor prescribed the antibiotic and how it will help. You can point to the label and emphasize that you’re following the directions exactly. If your child is interested, you may explain that the pharmacist dispenses some medicines, while others can be bought at the store. You also can underscore the importance of only taking medicine when it’s needed.

Dailey says books and movies can help prompt discussions about drugs and alcohol. “Kids connect to narratives,” she says. “A fictional scenario provides a platform that opens up a conversation.” Using age-appropriate language, talk about what’s happening in the story, why the character is making certain choices, and why it’s wrong to turn to drugs or alcohol. Answer any questions they may have, and don’t be shy about searching the Internet for more information.

Grade School

When children are a bit older, in third through sixth grades, make sure they know they can turn to you for information and advice. Be as non-judgmental as possible while also clearly communicating the importance of not using drugs. Ask them questions – perhaps brought on by something in popular culture or the news – and listen carefully to their answers.

Dailey says this is the right age to invite kids to participate in role-playing scenarios. “Practice ways to refuse drugs in various situations,” she says. “Acknowledge peer pressure to experiment with drugs and explore ways that they can comfortably say ‘no.’” But don’t stop there. Also help them practice what Dailey calls “escalating no’s,” which are needed when the first “no” doesn’t work.

For example, if your child is offered marijuana on the playground and turns it down, the other student might turn up the heat. An escalating “no” gives your child another out, perhaps by saying, “I’m not using drugs because my mom told me it was bad for me.” If the other student keeps up the pressure, your child escalates further by turning and walking away.

The key to mastering escalating no’s, Dailey says, is helping your child be assertive, direct, and tactful. “Kids have a tendency to laugh or to be passive,” she says. “They need to make their intent, their voice, and their disposition louder and stronger.”

Middle School to High School

These are the years when parents need be absolutely clear about their stance on drugs and alcohol. Dailey says adolescence is the right time to talk about gateway drugs such as tobacco and alcohol, about using drugs and alcohol in the home, and about prescription drugs. “Don’t leave room for interpretations or assumptions,” she says.

At the same time, Dailey admits that lectures may backfire. She emphasizes the need to have conversations, encouraging the child’s questions while showing a willingness to listen without judgment. “If you overreact or act shocked, you’ll close down the conversation,” she says. “Then they’ll be reluctant to tell you what’s happening.”

As teenagers and their friends begin driving, it’s important to talk about the consequences of driving under the influence or getting into a car with an impaired driver. While the risks for legal trouble and injury are real, teens don’t have a sense of their own mortality or simply may not want to rock the boat.

This presents another opportunity to role play, Dailey says. By exploring scenarios – such as being offered drugs at a party or realizing that their ride home has been drinking – teens can find solutions before they need them. You may want to offer a “no-questions-asked-until-morning” guarantee that you’ll pick them up anytime and anywhere. You can practice how to take car keys away from a drunk driver. You may agree on a code word they can text to you if they need to get out of a situation and want you to phone them.

“You don’t want them to have to figure it out on the fly,” Dailey says. “If they have a plan, they will be more confident when those situations arise.”

At Every Age

Talking to your children about drugs and alcohol is important, but there are other ways to help them help themselves, such as encouraging them from a young age to take a firm stance and not back down. Teaching coping skills helps children deal with failure and sadness without turning to drugs. Explaining how to set boundaries helps them resist peer pressure rather than giving in to drugs. Encouraging communication and artistic outlets helps them express their feelings rather than numbing them with drugs.

Children and teens today are exposed to drugs and alcohol at alarming rates and earlier than ever before. Keeping the conversation open while building up their self-esteem and teaching them to make smart decisions can give them the strength and skills they need to resist drugs and alcohol.

If you suspect your child has a substance abuse issue, call UAB Beacon Recovery at 205-917-3733, extension 103, to schedule an evaluation.