by Allison Dickens, LPC
As the weather warms up, days get longer, and your kids start spending later nights with friends, it is natural to begin to wonder what they are doing and whether they are making good choices. As a parent, the thought of your child, no matter how old they are, learning about or being influenced to try drugs and alcohol can be an incredibly scary thought.
Attitudes and opinions about drug and alcohol use have certainly changed over the years. “Just Say No” proved ineffective, and now kids are learning about drug and alcohol use, both the positives and negatives, at younger ages and from a variety of sources. How, as a parent, do you keep them safe but also give them the information they need? It has been shown that having an open relationship with your kids is the best way to ensure they make good decisions and speak honestly about their experiences. While talking to your kids about drug and alcohol use can feel scary, here are some tips to discussing these incredibly important issues at any age:
There is no” too young”! Often as parents, our instinct is to shield our young children from anything that may be harmful to them. However, children are naturally curious and will ask difficult questions. It is important to foster honest communication at an early age, and answer questions in an age-appropriate way. The focus should be on the development of healthy habits and a healthy mind and body, and the idea that drugs and alcohol create unhealthy habits and an unhealthy body. Also important at this stage is assisting your child in developing confidence, body autonomy, and healthy decision making.
Instead of: “Drugs are bad and you should never even think about using them.”
Try: “Sometimes, adults make poor decisions about their health. Drugs are bad for your body and your brain. Your body and brain are still developing, so it’s important to make good decisions about not taking drugs.”
Instead of: “What happens on TV isn’t real, don’t worry about it.”
Try: “Even though what we just watched was a pretend TV show, you’re right that it was a serious topic. What do you think about what you just saw?”
Instead of: “If this is too frustrating for you, let’s do something else.”
Try: “I see this is hard for you, let’s think of different ways to reach your goal.”
Into middle school: Kids start to learn more about drugs and alcohol around middle school, both from school professionals and from friends. During this time, it is important to keep that open communication going, and allow kids to tell you what they are learning and what their opinions are about it. They are also more likely to be exposed to drugs and alcohol use on TV and social media, and may have peers who are beginning to use substances such as alcohol and vapes. It is important to set clear boundaries, rules and consequences, but also help your children understand how to make good decisions surrounding drugs and alcohol and what to do if they feel pressured to partake. It is also important to continue to support your child’s emotional development, especially as they begin to value their peers and peer opinions over those of their parents.
Instead of: “I don’t care what your friends are doing, you’re not allowed to vape or drink until you’re at least 30!”
Try: “I understand what your friends are doing is different than what we have talked about you being allowed to do. What do you think about what your friends are doing?”
Instead of: “If anyone offers you alcohol, just say no!”
Try: “What do you think you’d do if your friend offered you a beer?” “Let’s practice saying no to a friend who wants you to do something you don’t want to do.”
Instead of: “It’s really none of your business why we have Xanax in the medicine cabinet.”
Try: “I know you’ve heard that Xanax is a drug that people abuse. However, I was given it by my doctor because sometimes I have panic attacks. Let’s talk about what happens when someone takes Xanax when they don’t need it, or when they take it more than they should. Also, I’m going to move it to a better spot, so no one who shouldn’t have it can get to it.”
For Teenagers: Communication with teens can be fraught even at the best of times. Of course, there is no way to control your teen’s behavior, thoughts or actions, so the most important aspect of communication at this age is making your boundaries known to your teen. Setting concrete rules and boundaries that your teen understands and agrees to is one way to communicate these boundaries. In addition, while the impulse is often to lecture the harm of drug use, it is more important to ask questions and listen to what your teen has to say. Setting up a safe place to talk about difficult decisions is crucial, as is being willing to discuss pros and cons of potential actions instead of shutting down their ability to make these decisions. In addition, it is important to know how and when to step in and seek help – while your child drinking at a party may be concerning, it is important to know when, how often, and how much they are drinking as well as their experience of drinking at the party before making any determinations about whether this could be problem drinking. In addition, it is important to point out any consequences their substance use has had on them or on the family, and make treatment feel like help instead of a punishment.
Instead of: “I can’t believe you had a beer at that party! You’re never going out again.”
Try: “I’m not happy with your decision to drink, but let’s talk about what happened and how you feel about drinking now that you’ve tried it.”
Instead of: “I’m sending you to rehab!”
Try: “You’ve been smoking every day for the past month, your grades are dropping, and you stay out late every night. I think it’s time we get you some help and figure out what’s going on.”
Instead of: “If your friends do drugs, they aren’t your friends.”
Try: “So you saw your best friend taking pills at school. That’s got to feel pretty weird, what do you think about what they did?”
It’s never easy to have these conversations with your kids – but remember, the sooner you start and the more you have them, the more natural they become for everyone. The most important factor in keeping kids of any age safe from substances is a strong relationship and open communication. Foster a healthy, trusting, and safe relationship, and your kids will be more likely to bring these difficult issues to you.