A Parent’s Guide to Prevention (Part 3): Talking With Your Children Effectively

A Parent’s Guide to Prevention (Part 3): Talking With Your Children Effectively

As soon as your child begins to talk, the questions come: “Why is the grass green?” “What’s wrong with that man sitting in the park?” If you show your child that you’re ready to give answers at any time, even if the topics make you uncomfortable, you’ll forge a trusting relationship, and your child will feel comfortable coming to you with concerns because she knows you take her seriously.

Being a good listener also gives you insight into your child’s world. Your child will tell you about the sights and sounds that influence him every day — he’s the expert about fashion, music, TV, and movies that people his age follow. Ask him what music groups are popular and what their songs are about, what his friends like to do after school, what’s cool and what’s not and why. Encourage him with phrases such as “That’s interesting” or “I didn’t know that,” and by asking follow-up questions.

In these conversations, you can steer the talk to drugs and why they’re harmful. If you can ingrain this information in your children well before they are faced with making difficult choices, experts say they’ll be more likely to avoid rather than use. In fact, teenagers who say they’ve learned a lot about the risks of drugs from their parents are much less likely to try marijuana than those who say they learned nothing from them. You needn’t fear that by introducing the topic of drugs, you’re “putting ideas” into your children’s heads, any more than talking about traffic safety might make them want to jump in front of a car. You’re letting them know about potential dangers in their environment so that when they’re confronted with them, they’ll know what to do.

To introduce the topic, ask your child what he’s learned about drugs in school and what he thinks of them. He may even mention people who might be using them. If you hear something you don’t like (perhaps a friend smokes marijuana or your child confesses to trying beer at a party), it is important not to react in any way that cuts off further discussion. If he seems defensive or assures you that he doesn’t know anyone who uses drugs, ask him why he thinks people use them. Discuss whether the risks are worth what people may get out of using them and whether he thinks it would be worth it to take the risks. Even without addiction, experimentation is too great a gamble. One bad experience, such as being high and misjudging how long it takes to cross a busy street, can change — or end — a life forever. If something interrupts your conversation, pick it up the next chance you get.

Teachable Moments

Another way to talk about drugs is to take advantage of everyday “teachable moments”:

  • If you and your child are walking down the street and you see a group of teenagers drinking and hanging out, talk about the negative effects of drinking alcohol.
  • Newspapers are full of the consequences of alcohol and drug abuse. Take your examples right off the front page. Ask your child if she heard about the mother who used drugs and was arrested. Who will take care of her baby now? Did she make a good decision when she used drugs?
  • Watch TV with your children, and ask them what they think. Do the programs and advertising make drug use look acceptable and routine, or do they show its downside? When you see a news item involving drug use, point out the story’s full implications to families and all of society: Drug addiction can cause or aggravate many tragedies involving child neglect and abuse, family violence and rape, HIV transmission, teenage suicide, and teenage pregnancy.
  • Whenever you see an anti-drug commercial on TV, use it as an opening to talk with your children about drugs. Ask them what they think about the commercial.

When There’s  a Family History of Alcoholism or Substance Abuse

If your family had a tendency for high blood pressure, you’d tell your children they might inherit it. In the same way, they need to know about recurring patterns of substance abuse, particularly if you, your spouse, or their grandparents have had problems with alcohol or other drugs. Children of substance abusers are much more likely to become addicted if they use drugs; they may have inherited genes that make them react to alcohol and drugs differently, and they may have had more difficult upbringings. When you use the example of a family member to illustrate why your children should be careful about trying alcohol and other drugs, you make a compelling argument.

Try to find a positive perspective. If substance abuse is a persistent problem in your family, you might tell your children that being aware of the challenge that the future holds better equips them to plan ahead and avoid potentially unhealthy situations.

The Drugs in Your Kitchen Cabinet

Ordinary household products such as nail polish remover, cleaning fluid, hair spray, gasoline, spray paint, and the propellant in aerosol whipped cream can be abused as dangerous inhalants. Inhalants pose a difficult challenge to parents because they can’t be banished from the household.

Because inhalants are easily available, they are a popular drug for younger users; more than one in five children report having used inhalants by the eighth grade, the year during which usage peaks. Parents need to tell children about the deadly consequences of abuse. Inhalants starve the body of oxygen and can cause unconsciousness, severe damage to the brain and nervous system, and even death.

Helping Your Child Say “No” to Drugs

No matter where children grow up or who their friends are, nearly all of them are confronted at some time or another by friends with bad ideas — ways of testing limits, getting in trouble, and doing things they’ll regret later. It’s not so hard saying “No thanks, I have to go now” to a stranger. But it’s a lot tougher when a child’s friend — especially one whose approval means a lot to him — tries to get him to do something he knows is wrong.

Even “good kids” occasionally pester their friends into skipping a class or lying about why they were out together so late. But if friends or acquaintances entice your children to try tobacco, alcohol, or drugs, the consequences can be more serious. The best way to prepare children to succeed in these encounters is to “role play” — practice similar scenarios in advance. With the right words at the tip of their tongue, children can assert their independence while making it clear that they’re rejecting their friends’ choices and not the friends themselves.

You need to have these practice sessions before your child finds herself in any new situation. If your child hasn’t asked you what she should do in such situations, find the time to bring it up yourself. Stress that you’re working together on a skill that comes in handy whenever someone doesn’t want to take “no” for an answer.

You might, for instance, take the role of a boy she likes and try to persuade her to share a six-pack of beer with you. What can she say? “You’re such a jerk!” is alienating. “I don’t know…” leaves the door open and sounds like she could be coaxed. The middle ground, in which she’s firm but friendly, works best. Help her rehearse key phrases that give reasons for why she simply won’t have a beer:

  • “My parents would kill me if they found out, and they always find out!”
  • “No, I’m not into that stuff.”
  • “I tried it once, and I hate the taste.”
  • “My parents trust me to not drink, and I don’t want to break that trust.”

Or she could state the consequences of drinking:

  • “I tried it once and ended up vomiting on everything!”
  • “Drinking would make me feel out of control, and I hate that.”

She’ll need to be prepared for protests. She can meet them with the “broken record” technique, in which she repeats her reason for not drinking over and over until attempts at persuading her cease. Or she can make it clear that the discussion about beer is over by changing the subject: “Did you watch the basketball game last night?” or “Hey, do you know if that concert’s sold out?” If all else fails, she should leave the scene, saying, “I’ve got to go.”

Resource: “Growing Up Drug-Free: A Parent’s Guide to Prevention,” released by the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, an extention of the U.S Department of Education.


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