How to Talk to Your Kids About Drugs

15 minutes to read

Parents cannot count on keeping drugs away from their children, but they can help keep their children away from drugs.

Sara had her first experience with drugs when she was 5 years old. Her dentist had given her nitrous oxide, popularly known as laughing gas, and she came home giddily making up rhymes and chattering nonstop. After a few minutes of clipping pictures from old magazines in another room, she appeared before her mother with her hands clasped around her long hair.

“Mommy, I was just thinking about getting a hair cut,” Sara said, her eyes wide with horror. “Next thing I knew—I don’t even remember doing it—look!” Holding out two locks of her golden hair, she cried, “I didn’t mean to do it!”

“Oh sweetie, it was the laughing gas,” her mother told her. “Drugs make people do all kinds of things they don’t mean to.” She then explained—for the first of many times—how drugs affect the way people think and act. Afterward, Sara’s mother, like other concerned parents, began to wonder: Was she jumping the gun by raising the topic so soon? When should parents start talking to their children about drugs? Had she said the right thing? What should, or shouldn’t, parents say?

Starting younger than ever

The answers to parents’ questions about kids and drugs are of vital importance to families. Although the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NlDA) reports that casual drug use has generally declined, more youngsters are trying drugs at earlier ages today. In grades six through eight, the use of cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs increased from 1991 to 1992, according to a survey of 212,802 junior high school and high school students conducted by the Parents Resource Institute for Drug Education.

“”Older teens and adults have gotten the message about the risks of drugs, but every year we have a whole new crop of kids entering kindergarten, middle school, and high school,” says Paula Kemp, associate director of Families in Action National Drug Information Center in Atlanta, Ga. “Just as we have to keep immunizing kids against measles and other diseases, we have to keep immunizing them against drugs.”

The key to prevention: Parents

Although many schools and community groups offer drug education programs, many experts say that parents are the key to success. “Drug prevention has to begin at home,” says Dorothy Hudson, a member of the board of the National Federation of Parents for Drug Free Youth and director of Families in Action in Tennessee. “Parents have been the missing link in prevention, yet they have more influence over children than anyone else in society. They’re the front line of defense against drugs.”

Parents in our society—regardless of race, income, education, or location—can’t always keep drugs away from their youngsters. But they can help keep their children away from drugs. “It’s not a question of whether kids will be exposed to drugs, but how they’ll deal with it when they are,” says Lee Dogoloff, the former executive director of the American Council on Drug Education, who has more than 25 years of experience in drug prevention. “Kids learn through relationships. As a parent, you can use your unique relationship with your child to convey the basic values that can keep kids drug-free.”

Every child in our society has to make a decision about using alcohol, marijuana and tobacco, usually before the age of 12, Dogoloff points out. For decades, researchers have been trying to identify the factors that influence youngsters to make good or bad decisions. Some youngsters are more vulnerable than others, but there is a lot we don’t know about risk factors, Dogoloff acknowledges. The most obvious risk factor, according to the experts, is a family history of alcohol or drug abuse, extending even beyond parents to grandparents, uncles, and aunts. Other predictors of drug use include learning disabilities; low grades or poor school performance; aggressive or rebellious behavior; excessive peer influence; lack of parental warmth, support, or guidance; and behavior problems at an early age.

Adolescents, alcohol, and aerosols

But it’s not just problem kids who get in trouble with drugs, according to Dogoloff. He has found that most adolescents who try drugs do so for two reasons. First, adolescents experiment with all sorts of things, including drugs that are easily available. Second, those who experiment with drugs say that no one has told them not to.

To complicate the problem, young substance abusers, particularly during the early stages of drug experimentation, typically feel invulnerable. Youngsters are convinced that nothing could ever harm them and that they could never lose control. Yet before they even realize what’s happening, they may become psychologically or physiologically hooked.

Drug use almost always starts with legal substances, such as tobacco and alcohol. Alcohol is the number-one drug of abuse, according to NIDA. More than 75 percent of eighth-graders admit to having tried alcohol, 55 percent of them by the time they had reached sixth grade. More than 30 percent of eighth-graders have had five or more drinks at one sitting, which is binge-drinking for the sake of getting drunk. According to a 1992 report in the Journal of Addictive Diseases, a study that followed 4,145 Hispanic, white, and black teen-agers in the United States over a four-year span found that those who regularly smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, or took such pills as amphetamines were more likely to graduate to illicit drugs than were teens who did not use these substances.

Some youngsters also experiment with inhalants, substances that produce vapors which have psychoactive effects when inhaled. Commonly used inhalants include solvents; aerosols; model-airplane glue; cleaning fluids; and petroleum products, such as kerosene and butane. Kemp observes that children between ages 9 and 13 can easily find inhalants in the garage or under the sink. And she warns that a lot of children in this age group also try prescription drugs meant for their parents and grandparents, particularly barbiturates or any medicines that can take away the pain and anxiety of adolescence. As they get older, youngsters are most likely to try smoking marijuana, which a number of studies have shown to be a “gateway” drug that can lead many young people to experiment with other illicit drugs.

The return of LSD

Among the illegal drugs whose use is increasing among both college and high school students is lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD or acid, the hallucinogen associated with the psychedelic 1960’s. Kemp reports that kids today perceive LSD as harmless because they don’t smoke it or shoot it up. Other drugs, such as cocaine and phencyclidine, popularly known as PCP, are less commonly used by teens, Kemp says, mainly because they are so disabling that a student could not use them and remain in school.

Although parents should be aware of popular drugs, their names, and their effects, the experts insist that parents do not have to become pharmacologists to talk to kids about drugs. The basic concept to convey is that there are no safe drugs and that the point of action of all psychoactive drugs is the brain. These drugs affect judgment and lead people to do things they otherwise would not do.

The toll drugs take

With continued use, drugs take a toll on virtually all aspects of a child’s life. One of the first casualties is a youngster’s relationship with his or her parents. “Trust goes out the window,” says Richard Schwartz, a pediatrician at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and an adviser to the American Council for Drug Education. Kids start keeping secrets, withholding information, telling only half the story, and fabricating lies. Finally, they get caught, which escalates the cycle of distrust between parents and children.

As drug use continues, schoolwork suffers. Psychological problems worsen. The risk of accidents, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases including HlV infection and AIDS, and suicide increases. The health dangers largely depend on which drugs youngsters take, how much, and how often. Because teen-agers do things with greater speed and less heed to danger than adults, it takes them less time to travel down the road to drug abuse. That’s also why it is extremely important to prevent youngsters from ever getting started in that direction.

Helping your child avoid drugs

Keeping youngsters drug-free requires good basic parenting skills as well as some specific guidance. “The most important thing you can do as a parent is to make sure your children know how you feel about alcohol and drugs,” says Lewis Eigen, who is manager of the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information. “You would be amazed at the percentage of children who drink or use drugs and have no idea how their parents might feel about what they’re doing. Parents have to start talking about drugs long before the age when youngsters even think about using them. The payoff comes later, when kids reach their teens.”

Other guidelines suggested by experts in drug education and counseling include the following:

Enhance your youngster’s self-esteem. Children need to respect themselves enough to say no to harmful habits. Good self-esteem is the by-product of healthy day-to-day interactions between a parent and child. To boost a child’s self-image, experts advise, sincerely praise his or her efforts and accomplishments. Teach children skills that make them feel competent and confident, and give them real responsibilities around the house. Any criticism should be directed at children’s behavior, such as leaving toys on the floor, not at children themselves.

Help children do well in their early social and academic experiences. “Youngsters who don’t have a chance to succeed and excel at an early age are much more likely to turn to alcohol or drugs later on,” says Steve Delfin, vice president for external relations of Just Say No International. Early failures can lead to a whole chain of negativity. The more protective factors children have—high self-esteem, good grades, positive relationships—the greater the chances that they’ll be able to resist destructive behaviors like drug use.

Start drug education early. Even preschoolers can absorb some basic messages about taking drugs only when they are sick and being careful about what they put into their bodies. “Don’t wait until the Labor Day weekend before your child starts middle school or high school and say, ‘Tonight I’m going to talk to you about drugs, and tomorrow I’m going to talk about sex, and I don’t want you to do either,'” says Dogoloff.

Clearly state your family’s values. Hudson and other drug experts believe that every family needs to establish a belief system about alcohol and drug use and communicate its values to the children. Children should know that their families do not tolerate using drugs or breaking the law.

Set unambiguous limits and rules. A child should be aware of the consequences of breaking any family rules, and parents should be prepared to enforce these consequences consistently.

Look for teachable moments. When you see a news report or article about an athlete’s or celebrity’s alcohol or drug problems, use it as a springboard for a conversation about drugs. Dogoloff suggests that, rather than preach, a parent should ask questions, such as “What do you think?” He adds that if the child agrees that drugs are harmful, parents can reinforce this value. But if the child does not think that having a few drinks, for example, is a big deal, the parent can respond with a clear message about why it is.

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Bring up drugs often. Rather than deliver an occasional lecture, discuss drugs as frequently and as matter-of-factly as any other health and safety issue, such as wearing seat belts or not playing with matches. Experts advise parents when discussing drugs to use the same tone they would use to explain why a child should look both ways before crossing a street.

Make sure your antidrug messages are clear. The message that must be conveyed is that drug use affects health and safety, and therefore it is a nonnegotiable issue. The biggest mistake parents make is being too reasonable, according to Dogoloff, who advises parents to tell their children, “If you ever get involved with drugs, I’m going to come down hard. Your warning is now, not later.”

Challenge misconceptions about drinking and drugs. Children get many of their ideas from movies and television, which can glamorize substance abuse or, at the least, make it look grown up. Parents need to respond to the messages kids see and say “That’s wrong.” If they do not respond, children assume that it is all right.

Teach strategies of resisting offers to drink or use drugs. Rehearsing ways a youngster might respond when pressured to use drugs can be especially useful. Take turns playing the roles of child and drug-pusher. If your child says that your responses sound dumb, ask him or her to suggest better ones.

Be a good listener. Practice basic listening skills, such as rephrasing your child’s comments to show that you understand; watching your child’s face and body language to show that you’re paying attention; and using encouraging phrases, such as “Tell me more,” to let youngsters know that you truly care about what they have to say.

Be a good role model. Teaching occurs in two different ways, notes Dogoloff, through what you say and what you do. “From the beginning, children should see that parents take drugs only for an illness in accordance with the way in which the drugs have been prescribed. If you as a parent drink, model responsible drinking. Make it clear that grown-ups do many things—including working and paying a mortgage—that youngsters don’t do and that there are good scientific reasons why alcohol is illegal until age 21.”

Be a responsible parent, not just a “good” one. “Good parents try to provide and do everything to satisfy their children’s wants as well as their needs,” says Hudson. “Responsible parents take care of children’s needs for love, security, shelter, and food but realize that doing everything for children makes them feel less capable and robs them of their self-worth.”

Encourage children to get involved with their peers in constructive ways. In a 1992 survey of 7,426 students in grades 6 through 12, researchers at BaIl State University in Muncie, Ind., found that those students involved in after-school activities were much less likely than others to smoke, drink, or use marijuana. Groups such as “Just Say No” clubs provide opportunities for youngsters to have fun with others who take the same antidrug stance as they themselves do.

Band together with other parents. Get to know the parents of your children’s friends and talk with them about alcohol and drugs. If possible, parents from a particular school or neighborhood might develop common rules, such as a ban on unsupervised parties and underage drinking at home.

Work with schools and community groups on drug education. “If kids learn about drugs at school but get no reinforcement at home, they don’t see it as an important life message,” says Kemp. Most schools are prohibited from teaching values, but they can focus on the health risks. Kemp emphasizes that it’s the parents’ responsibility to make clear statements about values, such as “Drugs are dangerous” and “l don’t approve of drug use.” The more places—home, church, school—where children hear, “This is not good for me,” the easier it is for them to accept the message.

Recognizing drug use

If a child does become involved with drugs, the signs can be subtle. Parents may have trouble deciding whether changes in behavior stem from the emotional turmoil of adolescence or from drugs. Among the most common signs of drug use, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, are the following:

  • An abrupt attitude change, including a lack of interest in activities once enjoyed.
  • Frequent vague, withdrawn moods or unusual flare-ups of temper.
  • A sudden decline in school performance or skipping classes.
  • Sudden resistance to discipline or criticism, or increased frustration levels.
  • Sudden changes in sleeping and eating habits, or sudden weight loss.
  • Evidence of drug use, such as drug paraphernalia or the smell of marijuana.
  • Stealing or frequent borrowing of money.
  • Disregard for personal appearance.
  • Ignoring curfews, deadlines, or other regulations.
  • Impaired relationships with family and friends.
  • Strong allegiance to new friends,especially individuals known to be drug users.

Facing a painful truth

Even when parents notice such telltale indicators, they may try to ignore them. Denial is a key feature of chemical dependency, on the part of family members as well as users. “A mother will call and say, ‘I found 10 cans of Scotchguard [which can be used as an inhalant] in my 11-year-old’s room. Do you think he has a drug problem?'” says Kemp. “She knows that the answer is yes, but she doesn’t want to admit it.” If parents have a gnawing sense that something is wrong, they should check it out. The real problem may not be drugs, but a physical or emotional problem.

Dogoloff has found that sometimes parents hesitate to take a child to a doctor for urine testing or to a drug counselor for an evaluation because they worry about how the child will feel if the results turn out negative. Dogoloff’s response is, “Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” In his view, there is no downside to checking out a possible drug problem. The parent should say to the youngster, “This is my job. If I saw you sleeping all the time and drinking a lot of water, I’d get your blood sugar tested for diabetes. I wouldn’t assume it would go away on its own. I’ve got to do the same when I see signs that could indicate drug abuse.”

Coming to grips with the fact that your child is a drug-user can be heart-wrenching. “It was one of the most painful things I ever experienced as a parent,” says Hudson, whose two sons developed drug problems in their teens. “But you’ve got to push past your shame and denial so you can help your child.” The first step is confronting youngsters calmly and frankly when they are not high or drunk.

“What I did was gather my evidence very carefully,” says Hudson. “Then I said to my son, ‘I know what you’re doing. I love you, but I will not tolerate drug use in this family. I’m here to help you, but you have to make the decision to stop.’ The most important thing is to make sure your youngsters understand that you still love them, that you’re rejecting the drug use, not the child.”

Seeking treatment

If parents find out that their youngster is using drugs, the next step is to explore the options for treatment. Treatment is based on individual circumstances and the seriousness of the drug problem. In some cases, as few as three sessions of family therapy may be sufficient. In others, a child may have to be removed from the environment immediately and enter a residential treatment center. And in still others, outpatient day care might be sufficient to end drug use.

To find the best approach, parents can consult various resources. These include their own doctors; local hospitals; health professionals specially trained in drug rehabilitation; parent groups, such as Families in Action; and national hot lines. The earlier parents recognize a problem and get treatment for it, the brighter the prognosis for their youngster.

“Very often kids get drawn into drug use because of their experimental nature, their tendency to push the limits, and peer pressure,” says Kemp. “When they start using drugs, they get physically or psychologically addicted, and they cannot stop. Once youngsters get into treatment, it’s a matter of habilitating rather than rehabilitating them. Because they are still not fully formed individuals, you can do a lot more molding than you can with adults. I know a lot of young people who got therapy and grew up at the same time, and together, the two served them well. They outgrew their youthful fascination with scary stuff, and they learned interpersonal coping skills.”

Hudson can testify to the success of treating drug abuse, because her two sons completely turned their lives around following drug treatment. “Drug use is treatable and curable,” she emphasizes. “It is possible for anyone to become drug-free. When a child uses drugs, it can tear a family apart. But if the right steps are taken, the family can be put back together again in a better way.”

The power of prevention

For parents looking ahead to their children’s and family’s future, the most encouraging news may be the mounting evidence that prevention can and does work. According to a 1993 report by the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, prevention efforts keep approximately 3.5 million youngsters from drinking alcohol and 24 million young adults from using illicit drugs in any given month.

From 1979 to 1991, the Clearinghouse found a very substantial drop in the percentage of young people using drugs and a significant increase in the percentage of users who quit. Youngsters reported that drugs were equally, if not more, available in 1991 than in 1979, but the difference was that they chose not to use them.

Lewis Eigen of the National Clearinghouse credits parents, along with government and private antidrug campaigns for the decline in drug use. “Where parents really make a difference is in influencing how youngsters perceive the dangers of drugs,” Eigen says. In 1980, only half the teen-agers thought of smoking marijuana regularly as risky; in 1990, almost 80 percent thought it was. The percentage who viewed using cocaine even once or twice as dangerous jumped from 31 percent in 1980 to 60 percent in 1990.

These figures, while an improvement, could be better. And drug education specialists believe they will be, thanks in no small measure to the greater awareness and efforts of concerned parents. “What makes parents unique is their unconditional love for a child; love and concern are their stock and trade,” says Dogoloff. “By letting children know they care and sending clear messages about drugs, parents can do more to keep kids drug-free than anyone or anything else.”

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