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Talking With Your Children About Alcohol and Drugs

​​As soon as your child begins to talk, the questions come: “Why is it so big?” “Why is the lady crying?” Why can’t we go fast?” “Why is that man looking scary?” If you show your child that you’re ready and interested in giving answers at any time, even if the topics make you uncomfortable, you’ll create a trusting relationship and your child will feel comfortable coming to you with concerns and questions because she knows you will take her seriously. She knows you will listen and discuss and offer answers or help find answers.

Being a good listener also gives you insight into your child’s world. Your child will tell you about the sights and sounds that influence him every day… he’s the expert about fashion, music, TV, and movies that people his age follow and think are very cool. Ask him what music groups are popular and what their songs are about, what his friends like to do after school, what’s cool and what’s not and why. Encourage him with phrases such as “that’s interesting” or “I didn’t know that.” Don't hesitate to ask questions like, “Why do you like that…”

During conversations with your child/teen you will find moments where you can steer the conversation to serious issues… even briefly. Any number of topics will give you the opportunity to help your child make choices or better understand a situation. You will have the chance to share facts and solid information when you keep the lines of communication open. The US Department of Education has learned that our teenagers who say the learned a lot about the risks of drugs from their parents are much less likely to try marijuana, for example, than those who learned nothing.

You needn’t fear that by introducing the topic of drugs you’re “putting ideas” into your children’s heads any more than talking about traffic safety might make them run out in front of a car. You’re letting them know about potential dangers in their environment so that when they’re confronted with those dangers, they will know what to do.

If you wish to introduce the topic, ask your child what he’s learned about drugs in school and what he thinks of them. He may mention people who might be using them. If you hear something you don’t like (perhaps a friend’s older brother smokes marijuana… or your middle school aged child tried beer at a party), it is important not to react in any way that cuts off further discussion.

If your child seems defensive or assures you that he doesn’t know anyone who uses drugs, ask him why he thinks people use them. Discuss whether the risks are worth what people may get out of using them and whether he thinks it would be worth it to take the risks. Discuss how experimentation alone is to great a gamble… one bad experience or misjudgement can change a life forever.

Individual discussions do not need to be long conversations. Pick the topic up again at another opportunity.

Teachable Moments

Take advantage of everyday “teachable moments” when time and topic seem to come together and there is opportunity to discuss those difficult subjects:

  • If you and your child are walking or driving down the street and you see a group of teenagers drinking and hanging out, take advantage of the moment and ask your child how he/she feels about drinking or that situation.
  • Take examples out of the local newspaper or news. Ask your child if he heard about a bust or arrest? Discuss how it affects that person’s family or life. Have a conversation about making good decisions. 
  • Watch television together and discuss characters or events. Take the opportunity to discuss advertising… is it honest or realistic? Watch the news together and discuss events and other serious issues.
  • When you see an anti drug commercial or poster or hear a public service announcement on the radio, use it as an opportunity to ask them what they think of those messages.

Clear Rules

Talking to your children about the dangers of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs with factual information is an important step in keeping them safe and healthy. However, often the other important step is overlooked: making sure that children have clear rules about alcohol, tobacco and drug use. Unless you are clear about your position children may be confused and thus tempted to use. Make sure you explain to them that you love them and these rules are to keep them safe.

Here are some things to keep in mind when making and sticking to the household rules:

Be Specific

  • Tell your children the rule and what behavior you expect. Remember this is not a one time conversation, but is part of conversations over the years. Let them know that certain behavior is not accepted and why. Let them know the laws regarding alcohol, tobacco and drug use (include prescription use and illegal drug use). 
  • Develop consequences for breaking the rules. If your children are old enough they can help suggest appropriate and reasonable consequences. It may be very helpful to write up a list of rules and consequences together!

Be Consistent

  • Be sure your children understand that the rules are maintained at all times, and that the rules hold true even at other people’s houses. Be sure to enforce the rule every time it is broken. It is important to set a good example. Children notice when their parents and other adults say one thing and do another. For example; if you have a rule that your child is to never ride with someone who has been drinking alcohol, make sure to not drive if you’ve had a drink.
  • Often around the holidays adults will let children “taste” an alcoholic punch or egg nog as part of the holiday celebration… this sends very confusing mixed messages to children about underage drinking.

Be Reasonable

Don’t change the rules midstream or add new consequences without talking to your child/children. Avoid unrealistic threats. If you do find that your children have been experimenting with alcohol, tobacco or other drugs try to react calmly and carry out the consequence you have previously stated.

Recognize Good Behavior

  • Always let your children know how happy you are that they respect the rules of the household by praising them. Emphasizing the things your children do right instead of focusing on what’s wrong. When parents are quicker to praise than to criticize, children learn to feel good about themselves, and they develop the self confidence to trust their own judgment.

Plan Ahead

  • Think about what you are going to say to engage your child in conversation about unacceptable behaviors such as use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs. Discuss the situation with your adult friends, or teachers if you want to be more comfortable with your approach and how you wish to state your position.

Give Honest Answers

  • Don’t make up what you don’t know… offer to find out, or find out with your child. Do a little research together. There may come a day where your child will ask if you ever tried alcohol under age, or smoked, or tried an illegal drug. Keep the conversation focused on what is important about them not using… eventually (as your children as much older) you may need to open up about something in your past but not in a way that glorifies use.

The better you communicate, the more at ease your child will feel about discussing drugs and other sensitive issues with you. This comfort level will grow and continue as your child ages and can blossom into a wonderful parent/child life long relationship.

Permission to use this material was granted by Victoria Kress CPP, Keeping Kids Drug Free Regional Prevention Director