Good parenting means preparing your child to meet the challenges they may face in the future so they stay safe and grow up healthy and strong. From an early age we teach our children to brush their teeth to avoid cavities, to tie their shoelaces to avoid skinned knees, and to wash their hands to prevent spreading germs. We also have to prepare for other scary possibilities, like what happens when a child is offered tobacco, alcohol, or drugs.
Frightening as it seems, these substances are often in a child’s environment at a relatively early age, even if he or she is part of a strong family, goes to a great school, or lives in quiet neighborhood. It’s a good idea to start the conversation with your children even when they are young. “Keep it simple” is a good rule of thumb.
Here are some tips for parents to consider when talking to their children about alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.
- Start the conversation early. On average, kids first try alcohol between ages 9 and 11. Waiting until they enter middle school to share concerns, warn of the dangers, and set expectations could be too late. Conversations with younger children do not have to be detailed, technical, or exhaustive. They just need to be clear as to what you believe and expect. Discussions of why can come later, but start the main message early.
- Avoid using scare tactics. Research shows that these do not work and may actually shut down channels of communication. Instead strive to be frank and factual, not sensationalistic or scary.
- Use “teachable moments,” in addition to planned conversations, that may pop up as opportunities to reinforce your message.
- Combat the myth that marijuana is not a serious drug. The legalization of cannabis for medical and recreational use has made it seem less risky. Kids often see it as harmless, “natural,” and non-addictive. Kids need to know about possible risks associated with using marijuana.
- Teach children the differences between the proper use of prescription medications (following doctor’s orders) and illicit use of prescription medications for recreational purposes. Just because something has been prescribed by a physician does not mean it is safe to use however one may like. Explain they should never take medications that were not prescribed to them, nor share their prescribed medication with anyone else.
- Help your kids see that most of their peers do not use alcohol or drugs. Adolescents tend to dramatically overestimate peer usage. They may incorrectly believe that using will put them among the majority. The opposite is true.
- Be honest. Children may be naturally curious as to whether you have ever used substances. Honesty is a good policy here, but so is tempering the truth with what you learned. If you have experimented, a good response may be, “Yes I did try marijuana, but I know today that it was not a smart choice.”
- Keep a consistent message going, all the way through college. While you may not relish the eye rolling of a teenager who thinks themselves invincible, the fact that they know where you stand and even what you may say before you say it, is a good thing.
Keep these things in mind to create more comfortable conversations with your children. For more information, contact the LYFT Coalition at 215.949.1660 ext. 104.
About the contributor: Tim Philpot is the Director of Community Impact at United Way of Bucks County and is the Project Director for the LYFT Prevention Coalition. He enjoys working with volunteers to promote community change and community problem-solving.