What's the best way to talk to your kids about drugs and alcohol and when should you do it?
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Trudy Ruminer: The sad and frightening truth is that our children are exposed to drugs and/or alcohol at younger ages than many expect. Many parents, myself included, have been tempted to lock our children up in a tower and keep them there until they are at least 30. Unfortunately, I am pretty sure there may be laws against this practice. So, before you start looking for the tallest tree to build your tower in, I recommend you instead start talking to your child early, often, and as developmentally appropriate about substance abuse and addiction:
- What it is
- How it harms brains, bodies, families, lives and friendships
- What forms it comes in
- Who is affected
- Why people abuse substances
- Most importantly that substance abuse/addiction isn’t something that happens only to bad people. It happens to sad people who want to feel better but don’t know how to do it in a healthy, safe way.
While there is no doubt that substance abuse runs in families, there is much debate as to the reasons why. Therefore, if you or someone in your family struggles with substance abuse it is even more vital that you educate your child about substance abuse, and of course, model for your child a healthy, substance free life style. Gretchen Super has written several good educational books for children regarding substance abuse that you may find helpful. They are titled as follows:
- "What are drugs?"
- "You Can 'Say No to Drugs'”
- "Drugs and Our World"
Here are some other good books:
- "Charlie and the Curious Club-Candy or Medicine" by Erainna Winnet
- "No Thanks-Saying No to Alcohol and Drugs" also by Erainna Winnet
- "Standing Up to Peer Pressure- A Guide to Being True to You" by Jim Auer
Trudy Ruminer is a licensed clinical social worker and the clinical director and owner of True North Therapeutic Solutions, an outpatient mental health agency in Oklahoma City. Trudy is mother to four adult children and the proud grandmother to one. She draws her knowledge not only from her own personal parenting experiences, but also from her years of experience working closely with families.
Dr. Bev Vavricka: Just as you protect your children against head injury by using a helmet or against communicable diseases by immunizing, it is important to incorporate teaching about drugs and their dangers before kids are put in that risky situation. When kids don’t feel comfortable speaking to parents, they will seek their answers elsewhere, even from unreliable sources. We need to arm them with truth and steer them on the path of making good decisions. Below are some tips for broaching this topic with different age groups
· Preschool to age 7: Use teachable moments to educate young children using terms they can understand. For example, if a character on TV is smoking, take that moment to educate on what smoking is and what it does to the body.
· Ages 8-12: Use more open-ended questions with kids about what they have heard about drugs or what they think about them. Start a dialogue now so that a foundation is there for when children get older and are less inclined to share their thoughts and feelings.
· Ages 13-17: More than likely, kids this age know peers that are using some kind of drug and will be challenged with the decision of whether or not to engage in drug use. This is where it is important to have a strong foundation for open, honest discussions. Teens that feel judged or ignored at home will seek out answers elsewhere. Parents should also be actively engaged their teens’ lives including knowing their friends and setting clear limits and expectations regarding behavior. Teens should be educated regarding the consequences of drug use including jail time and effects of driving under the influence.
Dr. Beverly Vavricka is a board certified Obstetrician and Gynecologist at the Center for Women’s Health in Oklahoma City. Dr. Vavricka takes pride in partnering with women and their families in making important health decisions. While practicing the full spectrum of women’s health, she does hold a special interest in adolescent care. She is married to Tim, also a physician, and a proud mom to Ellie, age 6 and Caden, age 4.
Nichole Mentzer: Having age-appropriate conversations about drugs is important. According to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse in 2012, Oklahoma ranked second in the nation for substance abuse. This means if you live in Oklahoma, there is a very significant likelihood that your child has been directly impacted by substance abuse, and that makes the conversation very different than if you were having the “drug talk” for preventative purposes. The drug issue is much more complex than “just say no” and our kids deserve conversations that go beyond that. Drug issues involve people, emotions, choices and relationships. Addiction may be a reality in your family already. Talk about it as openly and honestly as is age appropriate. We all hope that our children will listen to us when we say to avoid something for their safety, but there is no conversation we can have that will ensure they will never try drugs. Focus instead on being a safe person to talk to. Our children need to know that we are there to love and support the person that they are no matter what choices they have made concerning drugs. Being comfortable and open in your discussions about drugs from the start will help your child be less fearful and more comfortable about discussing these issues with you or other adults as they get older.
Nichole Mentzer is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) accepting clients for individual, couples and family therapy. She is passionate in helping women reach their full potential and assisting growing families in achieving a place of peace and gratitude. Nichole primarily practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Strengths Perspective and Trauma Focused therapies. As a mother of a spirited child, she has come to fully appreciate the transformative experiences birth and motherhood has to offer. Nichole enjoys traveling and finding gratitude in the small moments in life.
Adam Zodrow: For now, the drugs talk is limited to things that our kids see around the house (i.e., meds, vitamins, wine, etc.) We have conversations about how medicines are good for us unless we don’t use them the right way. The same goes for alcohol. My wife and I are by no means heavy drinkers, but our boys see us have an occasional drink. There is a balance when it comes to alcohol in the home. Kids need to see moderation and control. And, in my opinion, the last thing that parents should do is hide the fact that they drink from their kids. A veil of secrecy only makes something more enticing. As with most things, honest conversation and ongoing conversations are key.
Adam is a writer and content strategist for Traction Marketing, here in OKC. He also travels as a National Teacher Consultant for Catapult Learning, serving schools all over the world. Adam spent 11 years working in public schools as a classroom teacher, administrator and library/media specialist. He and his wife Lindsay own Collected Thread in the Plaza, and are the proud parents of Noah (4) and Finn (1).
Courtney Chandler: Now more than ever, children are exposed to alcohol and drugs at increasingly younger ages. The idea of waiting until children are in their teens to discuss drugs is an outdated idea. Starting as young as preschool, you can engage your child in teachable moments to help lay the groundwork for open communication.
A great example can include teaching children about the dangerous substances in their home or school environment. Discuss that they should never ingest these substances and explain to children that not all harmful substances come with a warning label. It is a good rule of thumb to teach children not to eat food or take medication unless it is given to them by a parent or other well-trusted caregiver.
School-age children may have more exposure to drugs due to increased access of social media or influences from their peers. Discuss your views on drugs, providing factual information on the effects of drug use and work as a team to establish clear family rules. Act as a positive role model for children by ensuring your actions reflect what you are teaching your children. Provide a judgement-free zone for children where they can discuss and ask questions as needed.
Courtney Chandler is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy and play therapist working for Sunbeam Family Services, a non-profit organization in Oklahoma City. Courtney is passionate about the power of play therapy and enjoys working with children, adolescents and their families.
Dr. Anne K. Jacobs: Talking to your children about drugs and alcohol should be an ongoing conversation. When children are young, lay the groundwork by teaching about and modeling how to make healthy decisions about one's body. As children grow older, they will inevitably be exposed to information about drugs through music, shows and cafeteria discussions. These are great low-pressure opportunities to start a conversation about substance use. Provide accurate information about the ways in which drugs and alcohol can be harmful.
The stakes seem higher during adolescence so there is a tendency to lecture in earnest. Fight that urge! Instead, start out by listening to what your teens have to say and be respectful when responding. Help them develop strategies for declining substances and for exiting risky situations should the need arise. Finally, help instill your children with the skills to manage their moods. What helps them feel comforted after facing a disappointment? How can they best calm their nerves? What should they do to pull themselves out of a funk? Whether it be listening to music, exercise, taking time out in nature, reading, reaching out to others, or creating something, make sure that your children explore ways to tolerate and take charge of their difficult feelings. Help remind them of loved ones to whom they can reach out, and always provide a safe place for them to land.
Anne K. Jacobs earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Child Psychology from the University of Kansas and enjoys serving children, adolescents and their families. In addition to her private practice in Edmond, she holds an adjunct faculty position at Southern Nazarene University. Her family includes: husband, Noel who is also a child psychologist; twin daughters, Keegan and Sarah; one dog, two cats, and five tarantulas.
Greg Gunn: Talking to your kids about drugs is not an easy task, but it is necessary. One thing to keep in mind is that teenagers do not rebel against authority; they rebel against a lack of relationship. If you keep the lines of communication open, talking about drugs becomes just another conversation.
First of all, make sure your family practices interdependence. If your preteen’s and teen’s emotional needs are getting met at home, the chances of them reaching outside the family for validation go down. Ways to foster interdependence include eating meals as a family and incorporating fun family outings, game nights and activities that encourage your family to conflict-free time together.
It is smart to start talking to your kids early, as they will start getting outside information by the time they are 9 or 10 years old. As your children grow, let them make as many decisions for themselves as possible, leading to a stronger sense of autonomy and confidence in their abilities to make choices later. Always keep conversations age-appropriate and matter-of-fact. Try to avoid emotionally charged language or fear-mongering.
As your children enter middle school, an onslaught of information will meet them. Be clear about the expectations for your family and the consequences if they choose to use drugs. You may choose to draw up and both sign a contract that clearly states these expectations and consequences. Ask your kids questions regarding what they hear at school about drugs and listen to what they think about it. Be choosy about who you let into their lives and get to know the parents of those they hang out with. The more involved you are in their world, the better chance you’ll be able to see any issues on the horizon.
Lastly, know more about drugs than they do. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, DrugAbuse.gov, is a great source to educate yourself on drug abuse and effects of specific types of drugs.
Greg Gunn, founder of Family-iD, is a life coach, pastor, author and speaker from Oklahoma City. Married for 30 years, Greg is a father of seven kids, a father-in-law and a grandfather of two. For 17 years, Greg has led Family Vision Ministries, a ministry that helps families put their purpose on paper and pass it on to future generations.
Dr. Lisa L. Marotta: Some parents worry that if they talk about “adult topics” too early they are interfering with their child’s innocence. I disagree. Children are curious and will get information from somewhere else, and that source may not have your child’s best interests at heart. Addiction is a big problem in our culture. To boost your child’s immunity to addiction, start talking early and don’t stop talking, and listening, about drugs and alcohol.
1. Teachable Moments (Preschool thru Middle School) Commercials and television programs often glorify drug and alcohol use, and fail to portray the consequences. When your child is young he/she is forming opinions about substances. Watch television together so you can help develop a more balanced understanding about drugs and alcohol.
2. Feelings Matter. (All Ages) Substance abuse is a negative coping strategy to deal with uncomfortable feelings like boredom, anger, sadness and stress. Teach your child how to identify and express their feelings appropriately. Accept their feelings and help them learn to cope through talking, reassurance and problem solving.
3. Encourage Involvement (Late Elementary through Middle School) Help your child connect to interests that will reduce stress and provide a positive peer group. In middle school, tweens tend to make friendships based on interests. Being part of a team or club keeps kids busy and adds positive peer support. Just say “no” isn’t enough, activities and friends that are inconsistent with drug and alcohol use makes it easier to say “yes” to healthier choices.
4. Be truthful. (Middle School and High School) Scare tactics make you less credible as a parent, so when your child asks you a question take your time in answering honestly. If you do not know the answer, “google it.” If addiction is part of your family history, be honest about this fact, it is a risk factor for substance abuse.
5. Set Boundaries (High School) Be clear and consistent in your expectations for your young person. Neurology is still developing throughout adolescence and into early adulthood. Premature use of substances interferes with normal development and may increase the likelihood of later substance abuse. Let your high school student know that increased freedom is based on substance-free behavior, and apply appropriate consequences when the boundary is crossed.
6. Be a Role Model (All Ages). Be thoughtful about the stories you choose to tell about drug and alcohol use in front of your children. If you do not want your children to ride in a car with someone who has been drinking, then show them safety through your own choices. Do not permit underage substance use in your home.
If you have a reason to suspect that your child is using drugs or alcohol, ask them. This conversation could be a turning point in addressing pressure from peers, academics or other sources. If the answer is no, but grades, behavior, friend group and attitude turns your parent gut inside out then get help to address the issue. Although there is no magic formula to eliminate risk, every problem that you face as a family will be easier to manage with open and respectful communication. Keep talking and listening!
Dr. Lisa L. Marotta is celebrating 22 years of private practice. She is a clinical psychologist in Edmond with a special heart for women, children and families. Dr. Marotta enjoys writing, public speaking and blogging. She and her husband Sal have two young adult daughters.
To find more answers to other common parenting questions, check out our collection of Ask the Experts.