How parents can communicate the dangers of drugs and alcohol

When it comes to parents dealing with teenagers, communication is everything. As kids get older, they may show signs of defiance, which makes having an important heart-to-heart chat that much more difficult. But the topic of drug and alcohol abuse is a crucial one, so parents must tackle it regardless of any hesitations about how it will be received.

These talks can start before the teenage years begin. Here’s a look at how parents can take on the big talk and follow up on it as children get older.

The preteen years

We often hear about “teachable moments,” though many of these are suggested after a mistake has already been made. With children, teachable moments can be more about prevention techniques. As described on, parents can begin to use these moments in the preschool-to-age-7 range. The example given is when children see someone smoking. Talking about the harm that cigarettes can cause, and how someone who starts smoking can have a hard time stopping, can set a foundation that helps in communicating the dangers of drugs.

As kids get into the 8-to-12-year range, talk of drugs may be more specific, though parents may not know when or how to approach it. The story advises to “begin talks with them by asking them what they think about drugs.”

“By asking the questions in a nonjudgmental, open-ended way, you’re more likely to get an honest response. Remember to show your kids that you’re listening and really paying attention to their concerns and questions. Kids this age usually are still willing to talk openly to their parents about touchy subjects. Starting a dialogue now helps keep the door open as kids get older and are less inclined to share their thoughts and feelings.”

The teenage years

Here’s where things can get difficult. The ages of 13 to 17 are often when kids are exposed to the most worrisome dangers, including drugs, alcohol and the behaviors that can go along with them. Ideally, the groundwork will have already been set by the preteen approach. As for the teen-year talks, here’s how the Mayo Clinic advises to approach it:

Make it a conversation: “Avoid lectures. Instead, listen to your teen’s opinions and questions about drugs. Assure your teen that he or she can be honest with you. Watch your teen’s body language to see how he or she feels about the topic.”

Break down the effects: “Avoid scare tactics. Emphasize how drug use can affect things important to your teen — such as sports, driving, health and appearance.”

Talk about the media: “Some television programs, movies, websites or songs glamorize or trivialize drug use. Talk about what your teen sees and hears.”

Examine peer pressure: “Brainstorm with your teen about how to turn down offers of drugs.”

Consider your own past usage: “Think how you’ll respond if your teen asks about your own drug use. If you chose not to use drugs, explain why. If you did use drugs, share what the experience taught you.”

Write up a ‘contract’

As part of the teenage-years discussions, recommends being frank about drunk driving, the possibilities of physical harm and death that goes along with it, and the legal ramifications of being caught with an illegal substance. And the story suggests putting it all on paper.

“Consider making a written or verbal contract on the rules about going out or using the car. You can promise to pick your kids up at any time (even 2 a.m.!), no questions asked, if they call you when the person responsible for driving has been drinking or using drugs. The contract also can detail other situations: For example, if you find out that someone drank or used drugs in your car while your son or daughter was behind the wheel, you may want to suspend driving privileges for six months.”

Try role-playing

Parents naturally worry how their children will react when presented with alcohol or drugs at a party. So role-playing can be a worthwhile exercise. Sure, you might get a series of eye-rolls from the teenager as you mimic a “C’mon and try it” scenario. But the point of having the conversation may help the teen to be more prepared for that uncomfortable moment.

As WebMD describes: “Talk with them about what a good friend is and isn’t. Role-play ways in which your child can refuse to go along with his friends. Praise him if he comes up with good responses. Offer some suggestions if he does not.

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