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‘The Talk’: How and When to Talk to Your Kids About Drugs and Alcohol

Mom and teenage daughter talkingIf you’re like most parents, talking about drugs and alcohol with your kids can feel awkward, distasteful, or uncomfortable. It’s not a fun talk, but it’s one that is necessary. Why? Because it gives your kids the chance to discuss their concerns and ask questions of someone who has accurate answers (i.e., not their friends), and because it opens up the lines of communication between you so that if they ever get into trouble, they know they can come to you for help. Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions by parents about talking to their kids about substance abuse.

What Is a Good Age to Start Talking About Drugs and Alcohol?

Some time during elementary school, drugs and alcohol will cross your child’s radar naturally. He will see someone on TV or someone in your family who is under the influence and he will ask questions – this is your opportunity to give him some age-appropriate answers and begin the dialogue that will come up again and again during different parts of his childhood. You don’t want to get too graphic early on – or too wordy. Keep it simple and keep it brief, frequently asking if your child has any questions and then answering them.

When Is a Good Time?

Take advantage of the “teaching moments” that arise naturally – like discussing a TV show or movie that shows someone using alcohol or drugs or answering questions when your child asks. Unfortunately, as your child gets older, she may be less likely to ask questions, and easily teachable moments may be met with little more than clicks and grunts from your offspring. But keep talking. Even if she acts like she isn’t listening, research shows that parents who make an effort to share their views about drugs and alcohol are often rewarded when the child listens and applies principles of abstinence or moderation in adulthood – even after she moves out of the house.

What Should I Focus On?

The truth. Though it’s important that kids know the risks related to drug and alcohol use (e.g., overdose, accident while driving under the influence, accident when in the car driven by someone under the influence, etc.), big doom and gloom talks that don’t offer any facts or an understanding of why people like to get high and drink may not be as successful as you want them to be. Though scary repercussions caused by drug and alcohol use may initially scare your child away from experimentation with substances, soon he’ll see his friends drink, smoke, or take pills and not immediately explode into flames or land in the hospital. He may likely start to think that you’re blowing the whole thing out of proportion and don’t know what you’re talking about – as he is more likely to assume about everything you say as he gets deeper into his teens. If you give him facts and acknowledge that drinking or getting high can be enjoyable at first but problematic despite that, he may be less likely to take all your warnings with a grain of salt.

What Kind of House Rules Should I Lay Down?

House rules are another way to broach the conversation of drug use and abuse during the teen years. No matter the legality of any substance in your state, they are all illegal for use for those under the age of 18. Make it clear that you intend for your children to abide by those laws while they live in your house and that there will be a “zero-tolerance” policy when it comes to bending or breaking those rules. Some parents believe that it’s okay for their kids to drink or use drugs as long as they are at home and there are parents present. This is not the case. In some states, there are even laws that make parents accountable for all actions of any minor in their home. No amount of substance use by someone under the age of 18 should be acceptable if for no other reason than it sends the wrong message.

What Are Appropriate Consequences for Breaking Those Rules?

If your child decides to break the rules that you have clearly set for her, then you must follow through on the clear consequences that you laid down when you outlined those rules. The consequences that you choose should fit your household and your child, but make sure that you are specific. “If I find out you had a drink, you’re going to get it,” is not as effective as “If you’ve been drinking, you won’t be allowed to go out the following weekend, and you’ll have to check in every hour by phone when you are allowed out again until you’ve earned back my trust.”

Should You Talk About Your Experience With Drugs and Alcohol?

Many parents wonder if they should discuss their personal experiences with drugs and alcohol. Most kids will ask, and you should decide in advance how you will answer questions about your past substance use. Depending upon your past, it may not be a good idea to share too many details. If you talk about wild nights and heavy drug use, they may see you standing in front of them and think that the risks must not be that great. If you never used drugs or alcohol before, they may think that you lack the experience to know what you’re talking about. A brief acknowledgement that you made some mistakes in the past and you got lucky but you know quite a few people who didn’t will help you lead back into the conversation about why people first begin drug and alcohol use and why some people end up with a serious problem. The bottom line is that what you say doesn’t have to be perfect as long as you’re continuing the dialogue consistently throughout their childhood. Make it clear that while you do not want them to drink or use drugs, you want them to come to you if they get into trouble or if they need help when a friend of theirs begins drinking or getting high.

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