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Talk to Your Child About Drug & Alcohol Use

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Talking to children and adolescents about drug and alcohol use can significantly decrease the risk of use. There are positive outcomes directly associated with parental and caregiver support and guidance, including the likelihood that children and adolescents will seek guidance from caregivers in favor of following the “crowd.” This is most true when the conversations are educational, supportive, and hopeful, rather than punitive and shaming. 

“The goal isn’t to be Columbo; you don’t have to try to wheedle clues out of your kids, and you don’t have to give a tell-all confession about your own past,” said David Simmons, MD, at Samaritan Family Medicine Resident Clinic – Lebanon who specializes in family and addiction medicine. “Our job as parents is to plant the seed with your kids that you love them, care about what they’re going through, and will be there to help when they have questions.”

Prevent Use With Conversation 

In general, the best time to start having conversations is around eight to 10 years of age.  Explain the dangers of using drugs and alcohol in age-appropriate language. Be there to talk when your child wants to talk no matter the time of day. Be open to text or other types of conversations that may be more comfortable to your child. Allow discussions to be a part of normal, everyday conversations, ensuring that the topic is never off limits.

Explain why using drugs or alcohol will have a negative impact on your child’s health and lifestyle. Be as specific as possible. For instance, talk about the negative impacts drug and alcohol use can have on learning, succeeding in a career and reaching other goals. You can also discuss the legal and physical consequences.  Be clear about your values and expectations but avoid moral judgements and lectures.

Build Self-esteem

Encourage and facilitate participation in hobbies, sports, and clubs. Listen and pay attention to what interests your child. Not only do these activities create a sense of natural happiness, they also prevent boredom, increase the likelihood of friendships that don’t involve drug or alcohol use, and increase self-esteem. Know who your child’s friends are and where they spend their time. Praise and encourage your child as much as possible. Positive self-esteem will increase the likelihood that your child will choose to spend time with healthy peers.

Recognize Risks & Signs of Drug & Alcohol Use  

If you suspect that your child is using drugs or alcohol, do not react in anger or demonstrate disappointment. Keep the conversation focused on concern for your child’s well-being and how the use of drugs or alcohol directly affects his or her health and well-being. Avoid judgmental or shaming statements. It is important to acknowledge that drug or alcohol use is not a moral failing or a sign or weakness. For example, there is considerable research demonstrating that addiction is a disease of the brain and those suffering from addiction can and do benefit from treatment and recovery resources.

Challenges such as emotional stress, anxiety and depression increase the risk of drug or alcohol use. Left untreated, mental health issues can lead to self-medication with the use of harmful substances. If your child is having symptoms such as stress, anxiety, social phobia, social withdrawal, and depression, it is important to schedule a visit with a mental health professional to explore the need for treatment. It is also helpful to maintain close communication with other caregivers in your child’s life, such as teachers or coaches, to ensure mutual support.

Drugs can affect any family and the risks are higher in families with substance use history. By taking an active role in your child’s life, and keeping conversations open and safe, you can reduce the risks and impacts of drug and alcohol use.

Resources for Parents, Grandparents & Caregivers

There are several resources for parents, grandparents and caregivers that provide data and guidance about talking to kids to both prevent and respond to drug and alcohol use.  Examples include the Partnership to End Addiction and the Center for Parenting Education. You can also learn more about talking about substance use in our health library. If you would like additional assistance, please talk with your primary care provider.