We are living in an unusual time to discuss the topic of drug use with children. Laws regarding controlled substances are changing. Public perceptions about those drugs are shifting. Media representations have evolved. And as the world changes, our approach to the conversation needs to change too.
Now that medical marijuana has been legalized in 17 U.S. states, for example, many parents find it more difficult to talk about drugs with their children. According to Stephen Pasierb, President of The Partnership at Drugfree.org, the recent legalization of marijuana has “created a perception among kids that [drugs are] no big deal.” That can make it difficult to have an honest, open conversation.
Many experts say that parents should begin talking to their children about drugs as soon as possible, starting as early as three years old. In fact, there are three age ranges in which children will be exposed to drugs, and each age range requires a different approach to address this important issue.
Ages 8 and Under
Parents should begin talking to children about drugs when they are still in preschool. One way to frame drugs is in the context of healthy drugs, such as antibiotics and legal medications. Parents can use these to illustrate the benefits of proper drug use, then contrast it with the harmful, illegal drugs children should avoid. Parents can also bring up the conversation by pointing out and discussing TV messages that portray drug use. These authentic, spontaneous opportunities to have the conversation are excellent ways to begin an open dialogue about the topic. From a young age, children simply need to understand that many drugs are harmful unless they come from a professional or a responsible parent. By incorporating these conversations and comments into their interactions, parents can establish a firm position on drugs from a young age.
As children get older, parents can begin to ask them what they think about drugs using open-ended questions. This conversational approach allows children to respond freely and lets parents learn about their children’s exposure and attitude toward drugs. It’s important to keep in mind that this is the age at which their acquaintances might start abusing alcohol. Studies show that in the U.S., the average age for children to try alcohol is 11 and the average age for children to try marijuana is 12. Parents, then, need to start incorporating more drug-specific information into the conversation. Parents can, for example, take their children to a local hospital or facility and show them what each drug looks like, how each drug affects the body, and why it is so dangerous. Visiting precincts, courthouses or correctional facilities can also provide a stark reminder of the legal ramifications of drug use. Parents can also try role-playing exercises to provide the child with a helpful script when confronting moments of peer pressure.
During the child’s teenage years, it’s best to create an open and honest tone surrounding drugs and alcohol. Children are likely to be exposed to these substances through friends and classmates by this age. Parents will want to discuss the legal, financial, and emotional ramifications of experimenting with drugs. Consequences within the household are an important consideration. Parents should offer, unqualifiedly, to be one phone call away at all times, so that if their teenager gets into a destructive or sketchy situation, he or she can call the parent for help without judgment. This creates a crucial trust between parents and children, and reminds teenagers that their health and safety is the #1 priority in all situations.
No matter the age range, here are a few more tips and principles to adopt to make the drug conversation easier.
Set a good example
Children often inherit attitudes and assumptions from their parents, most of them established through observable behavior. If a child sees a parent unwinding with alcohol every evening, he or she is at a greater risk of trying alcohol themselves in the future. Parents should not use prescription pills off-label, drive after drinking, or engage in any behaviors or choices they would not like their children to emulate.
Build the child’s self-esteem
Children who have a strong sense of self have an easier time refusing drugs and alcohol. Most teenagers who turn to drugs and alcohol are trying to escape their feelings of regret, disappointment, and guilt. Parents can avoid these feelings and improve their children’s self-esteem by spending quality time with them, giving them moderately challenging and age-appropriate tasks, and offering them meaningful praise after a job well done. These will reinforce behaviors, emotions and expectations that can protect a child against future drug use.
Be aware of pressure in the child’s life
Children are under a great deal of stress from school, friends, extracurricular activities, and work. It’s easy to underestimate a child’s stress level, but parents must remain attuned to their children’s experiences. Allowing children to discuss their problems openly, embracing their feelings and struggles, and collaborating on the right solution go a long way in solving problems productively. Parents should avoid the temptation to dismiss or minimize their issues — instead, they should help them through those problems by offering them advice and perspective. That approach is a compelling alternative to later drug abuse.
Keep the child busy
In addition to spending time with children, parents should also find ways to keep them busy with fun and meaningful interests. Hobbies, sports, extra-curricular activities and volunteer work are excellent options. These keep children busy and away from the downtime that can lead to drug use, and are instrumental in developing self-esteem.
Encourage open communication
A parent’s best chance of preventing a child from using drugs is to make them comfortable discussing the topic openly and honestly. Remember, they will be exposed to these substances at an early age, and they will have to make decisions about whether to participate. Because children look to their parents for guidance and information, parents must come from a place of love and support when discussing drugs. Having a trusted, authoritative figure with whom to discuss those choices make all the difference.
Together, these tips and approaches will make the conversations about drugs more effective, keeping kids healthy and parents confident in their children’s choices.