Risky Business: Talking With Kids About Alcohol And Drugs
By: DR. MICHAEL BIHARI, May 5, 2014
We need to help our kids distinguish fact from fiction. Locally the average age when a child first tries alcohol is 11, and for marijuana and prescription pills, it’s 12. And many kids become curious about these substances even sooner.
Listen carefully: Student surveys reveal that when parents listen to their children’s feelings and concerns, their kids feel more comfortable talking with them about substance abuse issues.
Role play how to say no: Role play ways in which your child can refuse to go along with his friends without becoming a social outcast. Try something like, “Let’s play a game. Suppose you and your friends are at Andy’s house after school and they find some beer in the refrigerator and ask you to join them in drinking. The rule in our family is that children are not allowed to drink alcohol. So what could you say?” If your child comes up with a good response, praise him. If he doesn’t, offer a few suggestions like, “No, thanks. Let’s play a video instead,” or “No thanks. I don’t drink beer. I need to keep in shape for baseball.”
Encourage choice: Allow your child the opportunity to become a confident decision-maker. An 8-year-old is capable of deciding if she wants to invite lots of friends to a sleepover or just one or two. A 12-year-old can choose whether she wants to join the school band or try out for soccer. As your child becomes more skilled at making good choices, both you and she will feel more secure in her ability to make the right decision concerning alcohol and drugs.
Provide age-appropriate information: Make sure the information you provide fits your child’s age. For example, when your 6- or 7-year-old is brushing his teeth, you can say, “There are lots of things we do to keep our bodies healthy, like brushing our teeth. But there are also things we shouldn’t do because they hurt our bodies, like smoking or taking medicines when we are not sick.”
If you are watching TV with your 8-year-old and marijuana is mentioned on a program, you can say, “Do you know what marijuana is? It’s a bad drug that can hurt your body.” If your child has more questions, answer them. If not, let it go. Short, simple comments said and repeated often enough will get the message across.
You can offer your older child the same message, but add more drug-specific information. For example, you might explain to your 12-year-old what marijuana and prescription narcotics look like, their street names and how they can affect his body.
Be sure to answer your children’s questions as often as they ask them to initiate conversation whenever the opportunity arises.
Establish a clear family position on drugs: It’s okay to say, “We don’t allow any drug use, and children in our family are not allowed to drink alcohol. The only time that you can take any drugs is when the doctor or Mom or Dad gives you medicine when you’re sick. We made this rule because we love you very much and we know that drugs can hurt your body and make you very sick; some may even kill you.”
Be a role model: Children will do what you do much more readily than what you say. So try not to reach for a beer the minute you come home after a tough day; it sends the message that drinking is the best way to unwind. Offer dinner guests non-alcoholic drinks in addition to wine and spirits. And take care not to pop pills, even over-the-counter remedies, indiscriminately. Your behavior needs to reflect your beliefs.
Discuss what makes a good friend: Peer pressure is important when it comes to kids’ involvement with drugs and alcohol. It makes good sense to talk with your children about what makes a good friend. To an 8-year-old, you might say, “A good friend is someone who enjoys the same games and activities that you do and who is fun to be around.” Eleven-to-12-year-olds can understand that a friend is someone who shares their values and experiences, respects their decisions and listens to their feelings. These concepts may help your children to understand that friends who pressure them to drink or smoke pot are not really good friends at all.
Encouraging skills like sharing and cooperation—and strong involvement in prosocial activities (such as team sports, volunteering, joining a school club such as Jack’s PACT)—will help your children make and maintain good friendships as they mature and increase the chance that they will remain drug-free.
Build self-esteem: Kids who feel good about themselves are much less likely than other kids to use illegal substances. As parents, we can do many things to enhance our children’s self-image:
• Offer lots of praise for any job well done.
• If you need to criticize your child, talk about the action, not the person. If your son gets a math problem wrong, it’s better to say, “I think you added wrong. Let’s try again.”
• Spend one-on-one time with your youngster. Setting aside at least 15 uninterrupted minutes per child per day to talk, play a game, or take a walk together, lets her know you care.
• Say, “I love you” often; nothing will make your child feel better.
The partnership’s website at www.falmouthprevention.org provides in-depth information about underage drinking and drug abuse. There is also a section of the site devoted to parenting and access to safe and reliable online resources for adults, teens, and children.
(Dr. Bihari is a pediatrician, a member of the board of directors of Gosnold on Cape Cod, and a member of the Falmouth Prevention Partnership Steering Committee.)