By Heather Hayes, M.Ed., LPC, CAI, CIP
When children first come into the world, the idea that they may struggle with hard issues such as drug or alcohol abuse is difficult to imagine. Those first few years often fly by, and before you know it you are driving the carpool to middle school. It’s crazy to think that you should be talking to your kids about drugs and alcohol as they head into middle school, but the reality is that if you wait much longer, you will likely be playing catch-up. Statistics show that most kids who use drugs first try them around age 12.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse provides some sobering numbers on what substances high school students have tried. By their senior year:1
- 70% have tried alcohol.
- 50% have tried an illegal drug (such as cocaine or heroin).
- 40% have smoked cigarettes.
- 20% have used a prescription medicine for non-medical reasons.
Drug-awareness programs target children much younger than you might think. Red Ribbon Weeks are a staple in most elementary schools across the country because one fact is certain—you can never start too early to educate your child about drugs and alcohol. When we know that nearly 2,500 children try prescription drugs to get high every single day, we have lost the luxury of remaining complacent or burying our heads in the sand. The threat to our children’s health—and their lives—is real and serious.
What that means for you as parents is that starting in early elementary school, it is important to have age appropriate conversations about drugs and alcohol. Great resources exist to help you navigate this sometimes tricky terrain, such as D.A.R.E., which offers recommendations about what to say and how to say it.2 A few things to remember when talking with your kids:
- Stay calm.
- Present facts without over-dramatization.
- Tell them lovingly but directly that it is unacceptable to you that they use drugs. Setting this boundary with them early on makes a bigger difference than you might think.
In addition, you might share your own experience with drug or alcohol use or addiction, again, factoring in age-appropriateness. Be honest but discriminating about the details you share with your 8-year-old versus what you might ultimately disclose to your 14-year-old. Few of us were a paragon of virtue of growing up, so it’s probably best to not pretend like we were. Kids respect authenticity and can smell insincerity a mile away. So, take the opportunity to use your own regrettable choices as a teachable moment for your kids. Tell them what you wished you’d done instead and what kind of real consequences you faced for your choices. This type of genuine connection is far more meaningful to kids than any scripted “just say no” type of lecture.
If you have a family history of addiction, be honest about that, too. Explain that because of their genetics it is more likely that simple experimentation may not be so simple and could develop into a full-blown problem. You might shed light on the real reason Uncle Frank always ends up storming out of family dinners or why cousin Amber rarely shows up for holiday gatherings. Remember to leave judgment and shame out of the equation: you are simply offering the truth in a way that your child can understand at their age.
Most importantly, let love guide every conversation you have with your kids about drugs and alcohol. That’s a given for you, of course, but make sure that message also comes through loudly and clearly when you sit down with your child. Create an open environment where they feel safe to come to you and tell you about their own experimentation or their concern for a friend. Listen calmly; hold back any criticism; then listen some more. Share with them that getting help for substance abuse issues isn’t shameful—it’s an illness that deserves to be treated like any other. Check in with them frequently about the challenges they’re facing and how their friends are doing, and remind them that you are their safe place, that you love them, and that you want them to live a happy, healthy, and full life.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.
- A.R.E. (2016). How to Talk to Your Kids About Drugs.