Tobacco, Drugs and Alcohol: Talk With Your Kids About These Issues
If you have children, it's hard not to worry. But don't panic -- and don't ignore the subject. Instead, if your child is older than age 5, start talking with him or her about drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Here are some guidelines on how to start talking and how to help your kids be substance-free.
Experts in the area of adolescent drug treatment suggest that you start talking about drinking, smoking and using drugs when your child is between ages 5 and 7, and that you keep the dialogue going.
When possible, raise the subject of substance use in context. For example, if family members drink wine with dinner, talk about why they do and what it means to drink responsibly. Or, if your younger child is watching TV and a beer commercial comes on, discuss the fact that although the people in the commercial appear to be having a good time, drinking too much alcohol can cause you to act silly, irresponsibly and violently. It can also cause you to hurt yourself or others. Talking with your child at a young age is especially important if family members have alcohol or drug problems, because children with a family history of substance abuse are more likely to become substance abusers.
As your child gets older, continue to talk regularly about drugs, alcohol and tobacco, but in a more adult manner. Make your views on the subject clear and repeat them often. If you don't approve of smoking or drinking, be sure your child knows this. Your child needs to understand that under no circumstances do you approve of drug use and that there are no safe street drugs.
Know the Facts
You'll be more convincing if you can state the following facts:
- Getting drunk impairs judgment. It can make anyone take dangerous risks that they would not take if they were sober. For younger children warnings may include riding in cars with a drunk driver (including, unfortunately, parents) or being around violent drunks. For pre-teens and teenagers warnings about loss of judgment might include: riding with a drunk driver or driving while drunk, engaging in sex against their will or before they are ready, or engaging in unprotected sex at any time, which could cause infection with a sexually transmitted disease, including HIV. Loss of inhibition may introduce them to drugs or the dangerous practice of sharing needles. And finally, teen girls may get beaten while drunk, their boyfriends are drunk or both are drunk.
- Marijuana causes short-term memory loss. Continued use during the school years impairs scholastic function and will directly affect performance, grades, and social functioning. It is also illegal and if caught will result in repercussions for the child and the parent/s.
- Nicotine is addictive, and smoking is dangerous to your health. It also makes your clothes, breath and hair smell bad, and it is expensive. These immediate consequences can be more convincing to kids than the threat of health problems years from now. However, it doesn’t hurt to remind them that smoking causes lung cancer, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, renal cancer, bladder cancer, mouth and throat cancer, and increased risk of heart attack.
- Using an inhalant is extrememly dangerous and can kill you, even the first time you use one. The solvents that are typically inhaled damage the liver and other organs. Some of them, such as toluene, can increase the risk of leukemia. Regular use causes permanent brain damage.
The Nuts and Bolts
- Make your point. Be clear about your views on drug, alcohol and tobacco use. State your position calmly and clearly. For instance: "No amount of smoking/drinking/drug use is OK with me." If you currently smoke, drink or use drugs, or if you have in the past, be honest about it. Tell your teen why you don't want him or her to make the same mistakes you did.
- Give guidance. Preeteens and teens sometimes use drugs, alcohol or tobacco to cope with strong emotions or feelings. Talk with your teen about other ways that he or she can manage emotional pain, stress or loneliness.
- Listen. Pay attention to what your child says. Do your best not to get defensive. Talk about your child's opinions without judging or accusing him or her. For example, if your child says smoking makes him cool, ask him to define what makes one person cooler than another.
- Explain the message. Talk with your teen about the messages in cigarette and alcohol advertising. Explain how companies use marketing to sell their products; nobody likes to be tricked or manipulated.
- Role-play. A newspaper story about a car accident caused by drinking or about a drug incident at your child's school can give you a good chance to talk. Ask your teen questions such as "What would you say if someone offered you drugs?" Then help him or her come up with confident, effective answers.
- Be Open. Make a written contract with your teen. Include a section stating that you will pick up your teen, no questions asked, if he or she is drunk or high or is offered a ride by someone who is. Let your teen know that although you do not approve of drug use, you don't want him or her to take dangerous risks.
How to Be Supportive
- Build your teen's self-esteem. During adolescence the body changes, emotions run high, and moods swing. It can be a confusing time for both you and your teen. Listen to your teen, and be careful not to judge. Let your teen know that his or her feelings are important. This helps build self-esteem. If your teen has the confidence, assertiveness and strength to handle tough times, he or she will be less likely to try drugs, alcohol and tobacco to feel better or to please friends.
- Know how much time your teen spends unsupervised. Studies show that having a lot of unsupervised time can make a teen more likely to try drugs. Help your teen choose healthy leisure activities.
- Be a role model. If you smoke or use alcohol or drugs, chances are your teen will, too. If you smoke or have a problem with alcohol or drugs, get help. Call a local substance abuse treatment center or an organization such as Alcoholics Anonymous (www.alcoholics-anonymous.org) or Nicotine Anonymous (www.nicotine-anonymous.org). Let your teen see your efforts to kick a substance abuse habit. Or, ask a relative or friend who is trying to quit smoking, drinking or using drugs to talk with your teen about how strong the addiction is.
- Ask for help. Raising children is complicated, and you may need help. Consider taking a parenting class or going to a family counselor. Hospitals and community centers often offer such classes. Your teen's doctor can help you find one.
- Watch for signs of substance abuse. Here are several common ones: -- change of friends -- drop in grades -- lack of motivation -- secretiveness or moodiness -- missing nail polish remover, correction fluid or paint from around your house (these are common inhalants), using air freshener, incense or breath freshener to cover the smell of cigarettes or marijuana -- violence or destructiveness
If you notice any of these signs of substance abuse, talk with your teen and your teen's doctor or a counselor. Take the problem seriously, and get help.
10-05-07 Montreal Children's Hospital - SW