The Talk: Discussing Drugs with Your Kids

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

No parents want to see their children use drugs, yet many parents don’t know what to say to their children about drugs.

Or they assume that the school program suffices or maybe hope that if they yell at their children about drugs, their children won’t try drugs.

All of these strategies are a big gamble.

“Parents are the biggest influence on their children,” said Cortney Pitcher, parent educator at Prevention Network in Syracuse. “It’s really important for that conversation to come from parents, starting early before it happens. Just a five-minute talk. Children really want to do well by their parents. It’s not all one big conversation. “

She advises starting with questions such as what they think about a hot topic related to drug use. Then prepared parents can offer science-based information on the drug.

“’I’ statements are so useful to tell kids without targeting other people or things in the past,” Pitcher said.

She advises open and honest conversation that comes from a viewpoint of love and concern. If the children sound curious about drug use or admit they or their friends are dabbling, Pitcher said to avoid yelling, blaming, accusing or threatening, since scaring children curtails learning about the topic.

“It does something to the brain and changes the wavelength on how it’s supposed to stay calm,” she said. “Reframe it. Take a time-out. If we talk with our children any further about the conflict right now, it can turn into anger and things we regret. Maybe we were taught these things growing up. Are there other ways we can handle these things?”

Ideally, parents should start at the pre-K age by talking about their children’s vitamin supplements as not candy, but only something a parent should give them once a day, like the label says. By elementary school, children could learn about the differences between medicine and illicit drugs and why prescriptions should be taken only as prescribed and by who’s on the prescription. Substance abuse education at school can provide a springboard to conversation and to answer any questions they have.

In addition to drug talks, children also need to learn problem solving for lasting solutions so they won’t feel the need to turn to drugs to solve problems or deal with stress, as well as how they would respond to offers of drugs.

“Empower them to do what’s right,” Pitcher said. “Ask them what they would do in a situation, like text the parent. If they’re in a situation with peer pressure what they would do? Tell them to talk with you and you’ll figure things out.”

She added that seeking outside sources of help such as the pediatrician is also a good idea. Websites such as www.talk2prevent.ny.gov and www.samhsa.gov may also help.

Around the pre-teen years, young people need to feel they can talk with their parents about anything without judgment or a harsh response. They need to feel that their parents will simply listen without rushing in to fix or teach all the time.

Also at the pre-teen age, it’s time to establish rules with consequences, long before something happens. Most young people can’t imagine that smoking a joint one time or taking a single pill will land them in a lifelong addiction. That’s why it’s wise to emphasize more immediate and likely consequences. For example, if they use drugs, they will get kicked off their sports team or other activity that means a lot to them.

JoLynn Mulholland, Drug Free Cayuga County project coordinator, stressed the importance of a solid relationship with teens.

“Your children need to know they can trust you,” she said. “That is the biggest thing that can help with prevention.”

Teens who experiment with drugs often have different reasons for their behavior than their parents may think. It could include scheduling stress, anxiety about the future, a response to bullying or other reasons.

“Help them develop coping skills,” Mulholland said. “No one wants to grow up to be an addict. Many use substances for a coping mechanism. Teach them yoga, breathing technique or things to do when they’re upset and how to use words and to otherwise express themselves are helpful in the long run.

It’s also important to lead by example. If you rush for a glass of wine every evening after work, it signals teens that using a mood-altering substance can help them relax, too. If you have used drugs in the past, use your experience to indicate the negative effects of using drugs.

“As a parent, you can be open and say, ‘You’re right. I turned out fine but that doesn’t mean down the line that the addiction won’t come out,” Mulholland said. “You don’t know if you’ll become addicted or not. That’s the danger.’”

Teens may also tell parents who did not experiment with drugs that their lack of experience means they don’t know the truth. Mulholland offered as an answer to that line of thinking: “’I was given the knowledge and information and I made the choice not to use.’ Explain why you didn’t do drugs, like to get good grades or stay healthy. Sometimes it triggers mental health problems, weight gain and other problems.”

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