How and when Should You Talk to Your Children About Drugs?

You see them on television and you hear them on the radio, Public Service Ads about talking to your children about drugs. Many of them are quite clever and most are on target, but once you’ve seen the PSAs, you’re left with little or no practical information about how to go about it, or where even to start. Everyone, I think, can agree that keeping our children off drugs is a good thing, but vast differences in philosophy, ethics, religious and/or spiritual beliefs, and communication abilities and styles often leave people confused and even at odds with others about how to hold these conversations with their children. Although I am confident that there will be many who will respectfully disagree with my advice, and I in turn respect their disagreement, I offer this advice on when and how to talk to your kids, and just how honest and specific you should be with them.

Now, first of all, I would like to point out that I am not a physician, social worker, or psychologist. What I am is someone who has over ten years experience in human services, working with people with disabilities and children at risk. I have been in the trenches, if you will, and have gained a perspective on the youth growing up in today’s world that I believe is neither pie-in-the-sky optimistic nor unduly cynical. There are some hard truths facing our kids and the parents who raise them.

The first thing you want to be cognizant of when deciding how to approach your kids about the dangers of drugs is how much they already know. There is no concrete timeline for the social development of children. Most parents think they’re okay until high school, or at least well into junior high, and many are correct, but don’t count on it. The first and most important rule is to be aware of what your children already know. Now, they’re not going to tell you, and if you ask them directly most will deny any involvement or even knowledge of drugs. There are usually clues, however, that they have more experience than they’re letting on, whether it is through actual experimentation or just information gathered at school or in other social settings. Don’t be dismissive if this awareness occurs as early as elementary school. There is a lot of hard information out there that your children are being exposed to. Your kid can be a very good kid and still have a startling amount of information about drugs, sex, alternate lifestyles, off color vernacular, and other things you’d prefer your youngster not be exposed to so early. They are in the world, and the world has been set on fast forward for a good many years now. You will not be the first one to expose your children by talking to them.

So how do you determine when your child has become aware of drugs? Well, it is likely that you won’t know the minute it happens, but there are some things you can listen for. Is she starting to make references to substances, for instance “that guy looks drunk” or “what a waste case?” That is a signal to you that she has been exposed no matter how unsophisticated she sounds. Is she pantomiming smoking a cigarette or marijuana joint in jest? Do you hear her talking with her friends on the telephone about a classmate that tried cigarettes or alcohol or anything else?

Generally these kinds of things sound innocent and quite naÃ?¯ve coming from the mouths of babes, but it is not over reacting to suggest that now is the time to approach the subject. Childhood and adolescence are very confusing times. The kids’ young minds and bodies are expanding, and, even if they don’t admit it, they’re looking to you for the nourishment of their minds as well as their bodies.

So, how to approach? You can start with something that refers the child back to the incident that first caught your attention. For instance, “Jenny, earlier you called Johnny a stoner. I was just wondering whether you knew what that was.” Then, whether Jenny answers to the affirmative or the negative, you’ve opened a discourse. If Jenny says she does know what the term means, ask her to define it to you, and then be sure to affirm what she gets right and correct, gently and respectfully, what she understands incorrectly. Remember, this is a conversation, not a lecture. Jenny has not done anything wrong by possessing knowledge of drugs no matter how young she is or how horrified you are. She lives in the world she lives in. If you want your children to come to you and talk to you about important topics, they will need to feel that the communication will be open and nonjudgmental. You can then further the conversation by discussing what drugs do to the body’s system and how likely it is that she is going to be exposed and tempted to try them during her school years. You’re not going to be introducing an idea that otherwise would never have occurred to her, she will most definitely be exposed to them at some point in the future if she hasn’t been already. You are simply supplying her with more information than most children possess when they are first tempted. Speak to her intelligently, but in language appropriate to her age.

My next piece of advice will be somewhat controversial, and I believe for good reason, but I stand by it. It is likely that if you are open and honest with your children, at some point they are going to ask you whether you’ve ever done drugs. My feeling is that the truth is that most of you have. If that is the case, this is where my advice to be open and honest comes to a screeching hault. In fact, my advice is to lie. We lie to our children all the time to keep them safe, and this is no different. Frankly, what I would suggest is that you tell them that you never did drugs, but that many of your friends did, and that you have seen first hand the damage they can do. This will present to your children a model of abstinence in an atmosphere of temptation. It will suggest to them that you did not abstain because you did not experience the challenges of the environment they’re growing up in, but that you chose to abstain in spite of it. They will be able to connect with you much more closely if they know or believe that you went through what they are going through and that you understand the confusion and the desire to conform. Be sure to emphasize that you were not ostracized by your choice, but that you were, in fact, considered a trend setter and someone who makes their own decisions in a crowd.

Now, any intelligent child will be likely to pull out the old alcohol argument. “But Dad, you drink beer and wine every night. I see you.” That can be a tough one, when you’re having this kind of conversation. The best answer, in my opinion, is the truth. Just tell your child that you do enjoy a beer or a glass of wine (or what ever your drink of choice is) in moderation, and that whether to drink or not is a choice she can make when she is twenty-one, but until then, her body is still growing and the effects of alcohol on a young person are more dramatic and can do more damage than they will to an adult. You can agree with them that it is a drug, but, along with caffeine and nicotine, it is the only legal non-prescription drug, and whether or not to use it is a choice they can make when they’re grown.

None of this advice, however, is worth a damn if you, the parent, are abusing alcohol or using any sort of illegal drug. If you are, stop immediately. Get help if you need it. There is no way you can educate you children about the dangers of drugs if you are using them yourself. Kids are smart and incredibly intuitive. They know where you hide your money. They know where your stash of chocolate is. They know how to unlock the parental controls on the computer and television. If you’re using, they know it. As soon as you lie to them, you will have lost all ability to help them through this difficult time in their lives. The old “don’t be like me” line is useless.

Now for the hardest part, the moment every parent dreads. The phone call from the school that your child was caught smoking marijuana behind the school. The visit from the parent of your child’s friend informing you that your child and her’s had broken into their liquor cabinet during their slumber party.

Hopefully this is helpful to you. Out children are growing up faster and smarter than we can keep track of. This is both scary and hopeful for the future of our society. With a little information and a lot of love, perhaps our children can be the building blocks of a society where so much fear and concern will become unnecessary. Respect their intelligence and their sophistication, and let’s give them the best shot we can.

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