Talking to Your Child About Drugs
June 16, 2004
KidsHealth.org

If you think you don't need to discuss drug use with your kids, you're not alone: according to a recent survey from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, many parents have a "don't ask, don't tell" approach when it comes to drugs. Nearly half the middle- and high-school kids surveyed said their parents had never talked to them about the dangers of drug use.

Why Do I Need to Talk to My Kid About Drugs?
Why should you talk to your kids about drugs even before they're likely to be exposed to them? Just as you inoculate your children against life-threatening illnesses like measles when they are small, you can "immunize" your children against drug use by giving them the facts before they are presented with the substance.

"If we as parents do not take the responsibility to educate our children about drugs, they are going to get the information from other people, and that information may not be right," explains Lisa Elliott, PhD, a children's behavioral health specialist. "Often, without that information, because of peer influence and the desire to fit in, kids will just go ahead and experiment, and they have no idea what they're doing."

What Should I Say to My Kid?
Preschool to Age 7. Before you get anxious about talking to your young children, take heart. You've probably already laid the groundwork for a discussion. When you tell your preschooler, "This medicine is for Tommy's earache, but too much will make Tommy sick," or "We only take the medicine when the doctor tells us to," you've already planted the idea that some substances can harm the body.

At this age, some children may also be ready for the message that drinking coffee or a lot of soda that contains caffeine isn't good for kids. "These types of discussions are laying the foundations for healthy behaviors in the home," says Scott Basinger, PhD.

For slightly older children, between ages 4 and 7, the talks can be more extensive. Dr. Elliott suggests telling kids this age to say no if a stranger offers them candy and to then tell an adult they trust. She advises role- playing those scenarios with kids who are at the upper end of this age scale, so they can practice self-control saying no.

Anthony Acquavella, MD, MPH, an adolescent medicine specialist, suggests watching for teachable moments. For example, when you're watching television with your children and you see someone smoking, use this opportunity to talk about cigarettes.

"Smoking is a good lead-in, because it's so in the media," Dr. Acquavella says. "You can start out along the lines of, 'think about this, you're putting all this junk in your body,' and then continue on from there to other drugs. That's a way to start bringing up the topic that there are chemicals out there that could harm you, whether they're legal or illegal."

The tone of these discussions should be calm; take the time to listen to what your kids have to say. Be specific about the effects of the drugs you're discussing: how they make a person feel physically, the risk of overdose, and the other long-term damage they might cause. To give your kids the facts, you might have to do a little research.

Ages 8 to 12 . As your kids grow older, you can open up conversations about drugs with them by asking them what they think. "Ask open-ended questions," Dr. Basinger says. "Kids don't want preaching - they're looking for Dad to sit back and say, "I saw a program on drugs when I was on my job, and I'm wondering, what do you guys learn at school? Are there drugs at your school? What do you know about them?"

Even if this doesn't immediately result in a discussion, you've made your kids aware and gotten them thinking about it. If you show your kids that you're willing to talk to them openly and hear what they have to say, they might be more willing to come to you for help in the future.

News items, such as steroids in professional spsorts, can be springboards for casual conversations about current events. These discussions can provide your children with information about the risks of drugs, Dr. Acquavella adds.

"We had five girls die in a car accident not too long ago, and the autopsy showed they were 'huffing,'" he says of the practice of sniffing toxic fumes from aerosol cans. "And one of the physicians on TV said, as tragic as this is, this is the perfect moment for parents to bring up the discussion."

Talk openly about how to safely use products such as nail polish or permanent markers in a well-ventilated area because the fumes can hurt the body. This is a worthwhile lesson to bring up when you're painting or doing similar projects.

Although inhalants like the computer keyboard cleaner used by the girls in the accident are a problem - some surveys suggest one in five children have tried them by eighth grade - two other perfectly legal substances more commonly lead children to try illegal drugs.

"You have to have clear standards on smoking and alcohol use with your kids, because those are generally known as the gateway drugs," Dr. Elliott says. Dr. Basinger adds that two or three times as many kids who end up in drug treatment centers smoke, compared to those without drug problems.

Your own behaviors will influence whether your kids try tobacco and alcohol. "It's hard to tell a kid, you shouldn't smoke and you shouldn't drink, when you're sitting there with a cigarette in one hand, and a Jim Beam in the other," Dr. Acquavella says.

Ages 13 to 17. At this age, your kids are likely to know other kids who abuse alcohol or drugs and to have friends who drive. It's important to impress the dangers of driving under the influence on your kids. "When kids are driving, or they're in cars with older kids who are driving, I think you have to sit down and say, 'people use drugs, people drink, and I don't want you in a car where anybody's under the influence,'" Dr. Acquavella advises. Talk about the legal issues - convictions for driving under the influence - and the possibility that they or someone else might be killed or seriously injured.

It's a good idea to set up a written or unwritten contract on the conditions of going out or using the car. You can promise to pick your kid up at any time (even 2 AM!) without asking questions if she promises to call you when the person who gave her a ride has been drinking or using drugs.

"Say, 'you can call me anytime, day or night, if you're worried about getting in the car with somebody, and I will come and get you,'" says Dr. Acquavella. "'I won't yell, I won't scream. The next day, we'll talk about why you were in that situation, but I won't be crazy about it.'"

The contract can also detail other situations: for example, if you find out someone has been drinking or using drugs in your car while your kid is using it, driving privileges will be suspended for 6 months.

"As long as you put it up front, and don't surprise them, I think it works out better," says Acquavella. "They know the rules to begin with; they can't argue with them. But you have to be consistent."

Risk Factors and Tips for Parents
"No one is immune to drugs," says Dr. Acquavella. "You can be the best parent, your kid can be the best kid, you can have a wonderful relationship, and he can just be in the wrong place at the wrong time and start something."

However, certain groups of kids seem more prone to using drugs than others use. One powerful predictor for drug use is having friends who use drugs. The best way to combat this is to know your child's friends - and their parents.

"Get involved in the schools, and know what's going on," suggests Dr. Acquavella. "Know your neighborhood, because different places have different trends in drug use." If your child's school runs an antidrug program, get involved. You might learn something!

Kids who are isolated from the mainstream for example, lesbian and gay teens or kids who are depressed or have been abused, are also more likely to use drugs. Pay attention to how your kids are feeling and get them medical treatment promptly if they need it.

A warm, open family environment, where kids are encouraged to talk about their feelings, where their achievements are praised and their self-esteem bolstered will encourage kids to come forward with their questions and concerns.

"It sounds schmaltzy, but it's true," says Dr. Acquavella. "You have to know your kids, and what they're doing. Tell them and reiterate that there's always an open avenue of discussion. If they hear it often enough, then maybe they'll come forth. But if you say, 'we don't discuss that in this house,' then they'll go elsewhere."