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Talk With Your Kids About These Issues

Talking with your child about drugs, alcohol, and tobacco is tough. But you can't afford to ignore these topics. Children learn about these substances and feel pressure to use them at a very young age.

If you have children, it's hard not to worry. But don't panic – and don't ignore the subject. Instead, if your child is older than 5 or anytime your child starts asking, start talking with him or her about drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Here are some guidelines on how to start talking and how to help your kids be substance-free.

Start early

Experts in the area of adolescent drug treatment suggest that you start talking about drinking, smoking, and using drugs when your child is between ages 5 and 7, and that you keep the dialogue going.

When possible, raise the subject of substance use in context. For example, if family members drink wine with dinner, talk about why they do and what it means to drink responsibly. Or, if your younger child is watching TV and a beer commercial comes on, discuss the fact that although the people in the commercial appear to be having a good time, drinking too much alcohol can cause you to act silly, irresponsibly, and violently. It can also cause you to hurt yourself or others. Talking with your child at a young age is especially important if family members have alcohol or drug problems, because children with a family history of substance abuse are more likely to become substance abusers.

As your child gets older, continue to talk regularly about drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, but in a more adult manner. Make your views on the subject clear and repeat them often. If you don't approve of smoking or drinking, be sure your child knows this. Your child needs to understand that under no circumstances is drug use acceptable and that there are no safe street drugs.

Know the facts

To educate your child, become informed. Learn about the four drugs that children usually try first: alcohol, marijuana, nicotine (cigarettes and chewing tobacco), and inhalants (glue, paint, hair spray, and correction fluid). The more you know about drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, the clearer you will be when you tell your child why he or she should not drink alcohol or use tobacco or drugs.

You'll be more convincing if you can state the following facts:

  • Getting drunk affects judgment. It can make people take dangerous risks that they would not take if they were sober. For younger children, warnings may include riding in cars with a drunk driver (including, unfortunately, parents) or being around violent drunks. For preteens and teenagers, warnings about loss of judgment might include riding with a drunk driver or driving while drunk; engaging in sex against their will or before they are ready; or engaging in unprotected sex at any time, which could cause infection with a sexually transmitted disease, including HIV. Loss of inhibition may introduce them to drugs or the dangerous practice of sharing needles. And finally, teen girls may get assaulted while they are drunk, their boyfriends are drunk, or both are drunk.

  • Marijuana causes short-term memory loss. Continued use during the school years impairs scholastic function and will directly affect performance, grades, and social functioning. It is also illegal; if a child is caught, there will be repercussions for the child and the parent(s).

  • Marijuana alternatives such as "spice" are no safer, in fact, may be more risky than marijuana. The fact they may be readily available, even commercially and fraudulently sold as incense, does not mean that they are safe or legal.

  • "Bath salts" (not to be confused with bathing soaps or perfumes). These can contain stimulants or other psychoactive drugs in small amounts. Even though they may also be readily available, even commercially, they are not legal or safe to use.

  • Nicotine is addictive, and smoking is dangerous to your health. It also makes your clothes, breath, and hair smell bad, and it is expensive. These immediate consequences can be more convincing to kids than the threat of health problems years from now. It doesn't hurt, however, to remind them that smoking causes lung cancer, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, renal cancer, bladder cancer, mouth and throat cancer, and increased risk for heart attack. It is responsible for nearly 500,000 premature deaths each year in the U.S.

  • Using an inhalant is extremely dangerous and can kill you, even the first time you use one by causing suffocation or heart irregularities. The solvents that are typically inhaled damage the liver and other organs. Some substances, such as toluene, can increase the risk for leukemia. Use can cause permanent brain damage.

  • When children or teens drink and use drugs, it effects their brains differently than when adults use. This is because the brain is more vulnerable during childhood and adolescence to changes and damage caused by alcohol and drugs.

The nuts and bolts

You may get a variety of responses when you bring up substance abuse with preteens or teens. If your preteen or teen is already involved in these activities, you may get responses such as: "You're making a big deal out of this." "I can quit when I'm older." "You did it when you were a kid." It's important that you stay calm, be nonjudgmental and state the facts. Making threats or losing your temper will not work in the long run. Here's what will work:

  • Make your point. Be clear about your views on drug, alcohol, and tobacco use. State your position calmly and clearly. For instance: "No amount of smoking, drinking, or drug use is OK with me." If you currently smoke, drink, or use drugs, or if you have in the past, be honest about it. Tell your teen why you don't want him or her to make the same mistakes you did.

  • Give guidance. Preteens and teens sometimes use drugs, alcohol, or tobacco to cope with strong emotions or feelings. Talk with your teen about other ways that he or she can manage emotional pain, stress, or loneliness.

  • Listen. Pay attention to what your child says. Do your best not to get defensive. Talk about your child's opinions without judging or accusing him or her. For example, if your child says smoking makes him cool, ask him to define what makes one person cooler than another.

  • Explain the message. Talk with your teen about the messages in cigarette and alcohol advertising. Explain how companies use marketing to sell their products; nobody likes to be tricked or manipulated.

  • Role-play. A newspaper story about a car accident caused by drinking or about a drug incident at your child's school can give you a good chance to talk. Ask your teen questions, such as, "What would you say if someone offered you drugs?" Then help him or her come up with confident, effective answers.

  • Be open. Make a written contract with your teen. Include a section stating that you will pick up your teen, no questions asked, if he or she is drunk or high or is offered a ride by someone who is. Let your teen know that although you do not approve of drug use, you don't want him or her to take dangerous risks.

By being supportive and having open communication with your children, you can encourage them to turn to you instead of drugs, alcohol, or smoking. As a parent, this is one of most important gifts you can give your children.

How to be supportive

The more involved you are in your teen's life the less likely he or she is to drink, smoke, or use drugs. Here are some ways to be supportive:

  • Build your teen's self-esteem. During adolescence the body changes, emotions run high, and moods swing. It can be a confusing time for both you and your teen. Listen to your teen, and be careful not to judge. Let your teen know that his or her feelings are important. This helps build self-esteem. If your teen has the confidence, assertiveness, and strength to handle tough times, he or she will be less likely to try drugs, alcohol, and tobacco to feel better or to please friends.

  • Know how much time your teen spends unsupervised. Studies show that having a lot of unsupervised time can make a teen more likely to try drugs. Help your teen choose healthy leisure activities.

  • Discourage your teen from having friends that use drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. Peer pressure is a powerful influence on teens.

  • Be a role model. If you smoke or use alcohol or drugs, chances are your teen will, too. If you smoke or have a problem with alcohol or drugs, get help. Call a local substance abuse treatment center or an organization, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Nicotine Anonymous. Let your teen see your efforts to kick a substance abuse habit. Or, ask a relative or friend who is trying to quit smoking, drinking or using drugs to talk with your teen about how strong the addiction is.

  • Ask for help. Raising children is complicated, and you may need help. Consider taking a parenting class or going to a family counselor. Hospitals and community centers often offer such classes. Your teen's health care provider can help you find one.

Watch for signs of substance abuse. Here are several common ones:

  • Change of friends

  • Drop in grades

  • Lack of motivation

  • Secretiveness or moodiness

  • Missing nail polish remover, correction fluid, or paint (common inhalants) from around your house

  • Using air freshener, incense, or breath freshener to cover the smell of cigarettes or marijuana

  • Violence or destructiveness

If you notice any of these signs of substance abuse, talk with your teen and your teen's health care provider or a counselor. Take the problem seriously, and get help.