Many adults assume that they should wait until their child is in middle school to start talking about substance use. But if your child has watched a football game on television and seen alcohol advertising or has been inside a convenience store where tobacco products are purchased, they have already picked up on a lot of messages about substance use. So it is important that those messages do not occur in a void without your voice providing context and fact-based information.
The reality is that our young people start picking up unspoken messages about substance use the first time they see adults drink alcohol or the first time they take a medication. For many children, this will be while they are still toddlers. So while we do not need to start talking about addiction then, we can start to set the foundation for future conversations on this tough topic.
The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids provides a helpful, age-by-age overview of how and when you can approach topics with your kids that will help build a prevention dialogue in your household:
Tips for Conversations with Your Preschooler (Ages 2-4)
- Explain the importance of taking good care of our bodies – eating right, exercising and getting a good night’s sleep. Discuss how good you feel when you take care of yourself — how you can run, jump, play and work for many hours.
- Celebrate your child’s decision-making skills. Whenever possible, let your child choose what to wear. Even if the clothes don’t quite match, you are reinforcing your child’s ability to make decisions.
- Turn chores like brushing teeth, putting away toys, wiping up spills, and caring for pets into fun experiences that your child will enjoy. Break the activities down into manageable steps so that your child learns to develop plans.
- Help your child steer clear of dangerous substances that exist in her immediate world. Point out poisonous and harmful chemicals commonly found in homes, such as bleach, kitchen cleansers and furniture polish. Explain that your child should only eat or smell foods or a medicine from a doctor that you, a relative or other known caregivers give to them. Also, explain that drugs from the doctor help the person the doctor gives them to but that they can harm someone else.
- Help your child understand the difference between make-believe and real life. Ask your child what they think about a TV program or story. Let your child know about your likes and dislikes. Discuss how violence or bad decisions can hurt people.
- Turn frustration into a learning opportunity. If a tower of blocks keeps collapsing during a play session, work with your child to find possible solutions to the problem.
Tips for Conversations with Your Early Elementary School Child (Ages 5-8)
- Talk to your kids about the drug-related messages they receive through advertisements, the news media and entertainment sources. Ask your kids how they feel about the things they’ve heard — you’ll learn a great deal about what they’re thinking.
- Keep your discussions about substances focused on the present — long-term consequences are too distant to have any meaning. Talk about the differences between the medicinal uses and illegal uses of drugs, and how drugs can negatively impact the families and friends of people who use them.
- Set clear rules and explain the reasons for your rules. If you use tobacco or alcohol, be mindful of the message you are sending to your children.
- Work on problem solving. Help them find long-lasting solutions to homework trouble, a fight with a friend, or in dealing with a bully. Be sure to point out that quick fixes are not long-term solutions.
- Give your kids the power to escape from situations that make them feel bad. Make sure they know that they shouldn’t stay in a place that makes them feel uncomfortable or bad about themselves. Also let them know that they don’t need to stick with friends who don’t support them.
- Get to know your child’s friends — and their friends’ parents. Check in once in awhile to make sure they are giving their children the same kinds of messages you give your children.
Tips for Conversations with Your Preteen (Ages 9-12)
- Make sure your child knows your rules — and that you’ll enforce the consequences if rules are broken. Research shows that kids are less likely to use tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs if their parents have established a pattern of setting clear rules and consequences for breaking those rules.
- Kids who don’t know what to say when someone offers them drugs are more likely to give in to peer pressure. Let them know that they can always use you as an excuse and say: “No, my mom [or dad, aunt, etc.] will kill me if I smoke a cigarette.”
- Feelings of insecurity, doubt and pressure may creep in during puberty. Offset those feelings with a lot of positive comments about who they are as an individual — and not just when they bring home an A.
- Preteens aren’t concerned with future problems that might result from experimentation with tobacco, alcohol or other drugs, but they are concerned about their appearance — sometimes to the point of obsession. Tell them about the smelly hair and ashtray breath caused by cigarettes.
- Get to know your child’s friends — and their friends’ parents. Check in by phone or a visit once in a while to make sure they are on the same page with prohibiting drug or alcohol use, particularly when their home is to be used for a party or sleepover.
- Help children separate reality from fantasy. Watch TV and movies with them and ask lots of questions to reinforce the distinction between the two. Remember to include advertising in your discussions, as those messages are especially powerful.
Tips for Conversations with Your Teenager (Ages 13-18)
- Make sure your teen knows your rules and the consequences for breaking those rules — and, most importantly, that you really will enforce those consequences if the rules are broken. Research shows that kids are less likely to use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs if their parents have established a pattern of setting clear rules and consequences for breaking those rules. Kids who are not regularly monitored by their parents are four times more likely to use drugs.
- Make it clear that you disapprove of youth use of alcohol, tobacco and drug use, but emphasize your concern about the welfare of young people who use substances rather than judging them for their use. Stigmatizing people can make it harder for your teen to reach out for help if they do experience issues with substance use or if they are worried about a friend. Also, learn about what your teen values most. Teens might be focused on their health, relationships, grades, athletic or artistic performance, or physical appearance. Remind them about how substance use might negatively affect these areas of their lives.
- Let your teen in on all the things you find wonderful about them. They need to hear a lot of positive comments about their life and who they are as an individual — and not just when they make the basketball team or does well on a test. Positive reinforcement can go a long way in preventing drug use among teens.
- Show interest in and discuss your child’s daily ups and downs. You’ll earn your child’s trust, learn how to talk to each other, and won’t take your child by surprise when you voice a strong point of view about drugs.
- Don’t just leave your teen’s anti-drug education up to her school. Ask your teen what they’ve learned about drugs in school and then build on that with additional topics, such as how and why chemical dependence occurs; the unpredictable nature of dependency and how it varies from person to person; the impact of drug use on maintaining a healthy lifestyle; or positive approaches to stress reduction.
- Encourage your teen to volunteer somewhere that he can see the impact of drugs on your community. Teenagers tend to be idealistic and enjoy hearing about ways they can help make an impact. Help your teen research volunteer opportunities at local homeless shelters, hospitals or victim services centers.