How to talk to your kids about drugs and alcohol

As parents, we know our children will face temptation in their lives. We know that they will come to crossroads where they can go one way or the other, and that sometimes the “other” can be dangerous. When it comes to the use of drugs and alcohol, it’s important to communicate the true threats of these substances to your teen. Connie Kerrigan, Director of Community Outreach, Parkview Behavioral Health, offers these tips for sparking a healthy dialogue.

Parenting is one of the greatest joys in life, bringing with it the reward of watching your child mature and tackle new situations. Parenting can also feel like the most difficult, heavy responsibility you could ever have. Our role requires us to have difficult conversations about a number of topics. While starting that dialogue can feel overwhelming at times, the good news is that over the years it will become easier.

The discussion around drinking and the use of drugs is certainly one of those topics that can seem daunting. We question how to begin the conversation, what age to start addressing it and how in depth we should go. Here a few tips to make that conversation a little easier and some key facts to remember as you talk with your child or teen.

Starting the conversation

It’s important to remember that the conversations around this topic are ongoing and will last through-out their childhood and adolescence. The good news is, it doesn’t need to be a formal talk and the opportunities for discussion are numerous. It can be beneficial to start with several small talks versus one large discussion. Kids have a tendency to tune out during long lectures. Parents sometime find it easier to talk about the subject as they are driving to school or extra-curricular activities, while watching television or playing a game. This approach removes some of the tense emotions associated with difficult topics and allows everyone to feel more comfortable. 

Know the facts

Make sure you share with them factual information around drinking or using other drugs. Science tells us that the human brain is not mature until age 25, and using alcohol, smoking cigarettes, experimenting with marijuana or other drugs at a younger age can impact brain growth and put a person at a higher risk for addiction. Try to avoid scare tactics during your discussion, and make sure you use reputable sites such as National Institute of Health (NIH) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to get the facts about drugs and alcohol.

The social aspect

It’s important to talk about what they should do if they are offered drugs or alcohol. Discuss how to avoid the peer pressure to use, and how to gracefully exit a situation if needed. Remind them that it’s OK to blame you and tell their friends how much trouble they would be in if they got caught. Having strategies ahead of time provides them with the confidence and tools to successfully navigate the situation. In fact, one tactic some parents and teens have used is code word texts, the teen can text the code word to the parent and the parent can call and tell the teen they are needed at home. This method allows them to exit without having to make a phone call and places the exit on the parent’s shoulders.

It is important to talk about never getting in a car with someone who has been drinking or using drugs, and, if they themselves find themselves under the influence, to call for a ride. It may not be your ideal situation, but keeping them safe at this point is the key. You can talk about it the next day, but be thankful they felt confident enough in your relationship to make that difficult call for help.

Risk of addiction 

If you have a family history of addiction, it is important to share that with your child. Individuals who have a family history are at an even greater risk for addiction than their friends who may not have that genetic tendency. Remind them that it doesn’t mean they will have an addiction; it just means they need to be aware of the added risk that they face.

Last but not least, when they tell you, “everyone is doing it,” it is just their perception.  Many teens and young adults choose to not use drugs and alcohol and reminding them of this fact may help them to resist the pressure to use.

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