How to Talk to Your Kids About Drugs

How to Talk to Your Kids About Drugs
Posted by FoM on April 06, 2000 at 08:42:14 PT
By Tracey Paradiso 
What is the single most important consideration in a child's decision whether to use drugs, alcohol or tobacco? Jail? Death? Polls of children have consistently shown that the most powerful deterrent to substance abuse is a desire not to disappoint their parents. 
"Let's face it, society is a challenge, but parents remain the biggest influence in a kid's life, and they shouldn't forget that," said Howard Simon, spokesman for Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA). For this reason, public service announcements encourage parents to talk to their children about drugs. But experts say there is an art to communicating your values and expectations on this vital subject to your child -- and they urge parents also to teach their children the decision-making skills that will enable them to anticipate the consequences of using drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Alcohol and Nicotine: 'Gateway Drugs' The age at which children start using drugs, alcohol and tobacco has been dropping steadily, experts have noted. The average age of youngsters who start smoking is 10. "Alcohol and nicotine [are] the 'gateway drugs' that start a pattern of behavior that then leads to other drug usage," Earl Fielder, special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told The average age is 13 1/2 for children who smoke marijuana, which can be laced with crack, cocaine, PCP and other drugs, explained Carol Falkowski, a spokeswoman for the Hazelden Foundation. The drug scene today also has choices that weren't available to baby boomers in the '60s and '70s. Children have access to a variety of Ecstasy and other "club" or "party" drugs, as well as a new form of heroin that is snorted instead of injected -- which may make it more inviting. Teach That There Are Consequences: "All along in the development of a child, we're always setting out limits and telling them, 'Don't cross the street without looking,' 'Don't eat candy you find on the street.' And it should be the same thing with the dangers of alcohol and drugs," Falkowski said. It's also important that children clearly understand that their actions and choices carry consequences, said parenting expert Michael Thomson. He suggests clear communication and limits. "This is what we expect of your behavior in our home," a parent might say to a child, Thomson said. "If you make the right choices you earn this: It's called privileges. If you make poor choices -- then guess what, First National Bank of Mom and Dad is now closed, ride service is now over, you are now not using the phone." When children make poor choices, Thomson said, parents need to follow through on consequences and not lower the bar of what is expected. Create an 'Ongoing Dialogue' "Parents assume that when their child reaches a certain age, it's time to sit down and have a 'drug talk' when, in fact, the better approach is to talk early and to talk often," said Falkowski. Ongoing dialogue is at the heart of prevention efforts. "Dialogue implies there's two ways here, that you're talking with your kids, and that it's ongoing," said Simon. Experts agree that the best way to communicate values and expectations to a child of any age is to learn to recognize, and take advantage of, "teachable moments" that can serve as a springboard to a discussion about the important topic. Seize The Moment: Catalysts for teachable moments can be a television program, a newspaper article, an event that occurs at school or an advertisement, said Diane Litterer, spokeswoman for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. To initiate a talk, a parent might ask, "What did you think about what happened in that show?" Such comments can be a natural, unforced and nonthreatening way to communicate your value system and expectations. But these windows of opportunity can present themselves unexpectedly, so keep your antennae up. "It's helpful when kids bring up the topics themselves, because they don't view the discussion as a lecture," Litterer said. Especially with older kids, avoid the "hellfire and brimstone" talks, Thomson stressed. "You need to be more realistic and say, 'Listen, we know it's out there. We do not want you to use it. We don't want you to be part of it. If you make a choice to get involved, we are going to hold you accountable.'" Complicated Histories: A baby boomer who is now a parent in West Caldwell, N.J., struggles over what to tell her children about drugs. "It's very intimidating ... because of what I myself did at my daughter's age, and I'm not sure how to deal with that. I would disclose these things to her, but circumstances today are very different," she said. The mother didn't want her name used. It's not uncommon for parents to experience inner conflict about the topic, Litterer said. But she said parents must overcome their ambivalence because of the more serious consequences of drug use today. "Bear in mind ... [that] drugs are more prevalent, more potent, lead to more promiscuous activities and violence at younger ages and have greater consequences, such as sexually transmitted diseases and HIV." The Power of Love: If there is an active alcoholic or drug abuser in the family, children will need more candid talks about addiction from an early age. "Parents need to be aware of their feelings, but they also need to be aware of what they want for their kids. Once you know what you want for them, you have to be in a position to explain that to them," said Simon. Sometimes, it's as simple as saying, "I don't want you to do drugs because I love you and I care about you," said Simon. Tracey Paradiso is an correspondent in New Jersey.New York ( Published: April 4, 2000 ęCopyright 2000 APB Online, Inc. 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