How to Talk to Your Child about Substance Use
It is (almost) never too early to talk with your children about alcohol and other drugs. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), children as young as nine years old start viewing alcohol in a more positive way, and approximately 3,300 children as young as 12 try marijuana each day. About 10% of 12-year-olds also report having tried alcohol; by age 15, that number increases to 50%. And, by the time they are seniors, almost 70% of high school students have tried alcohol, 50% have taken an illegal drug, and more than 20% have used a prescription drug for non-medical purposes. So, how should you go about talking to your children? Here are some suggestions by age.
Children Younger than 10
Prevention at a young age is critical. Get your child involved in extracurricular activities such as sports, Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts, school clubs, hobbies, or other activities. Kids do great when they are active, supported in their passions, and feel like part of a community. Look for activities that you and your child or your entire family can do together. Even just sharing a meal together can provide an opportunity to talk and learn what’s going on. This is also a critical time where kids are absorbing and mimicking, so when you engage in healthier habits, you are modeling for your kids to do the same.
Take advantage of “teachable” moments that happen naturally. For example, if your child sees a character in a TV show or movie with a cigarette, it might be an opportunity to cultivate an open dialogue about smoking. When they ask questions, it’s a good thing! Be engaging. They need to know the why as much as they need to know smoking is bad. This can lead to a conversation about the danger of other drugs.
This is the time to help build a foundation of healthy habits and instill good boundaries for your child. Remember to be positive and open with your child; this will stay with them throughout their life. This is the most important takeaway for this age group.
Children Ages 10-14
As your child grows, it’s important to be transparent and to educate them, not lecture. They are at an age here where they are identifying as separate from you. Give them the facts before they’re in a risky situation or rely on friends for answers. You want to make discussions around substance use relatable to your child so that they are more likely to engage with you. It’s important to show that you’re genuinely listening and paying attention to their concerns and questions. Ask your child what they’ve heard about drugs in a non-judgmental way. Kids in this age group are still usually willing to talk openly to with their parents about sensitive subjects. Talking now, transparently, will help keep the door open as they get older.
Remember, your child is highly attuned to your emotions, even when you think you are hiding them, so it’s critical that you are honest in an age-appropriate way about alcohol and drugs. It’s important your child knows the things that will harm them and help them. Contrast the negative impacts of drugs and alcohol with the positives of playing/being active, communicating, having boundaries and self-worth, thinking for yourself, and whole fruits and vegetables as well as vitamins and minerals.
Children Ages 14-18
By this age, your child has, most likely, been exposed to drugs. They probably have peers who use substances and friends who drive. The ways you have been modeling honest, open communication and helping to support their passions are all important because it teaches them to think for themselves and to trust you when things go wrong. Transparent conversations are imperative now. Talk about your teen’s thoughts and feelings as well as the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
You can make your expectations clear and help your teen feel safe coming to you. For example, you can promise to pick your child up at any time, no questions asked (that night), if they call you when they are in a situation where the driver has been drinking or using drugs. This is the next chapter in them learning good – and bad – consequences for their actions. Boundaries are critical here, and so is involving your teen in the harder conversations. They push harder at this age, and they need to know that you will catch them but not enable them.
Parents have a significant impact on their children’s decisions to try alcohol and/or other drugs. That is why the sooner you talk to your child about drugs and alcohol, the greater chance you have of influencing their decisions to try these substances. Knowledge is so powerful. It is important to establish an open and honest relationship with your child. When you create a supportive environment, model good self-care, and explain age-relevant reasoning, your child is more likely to make better decisions. Mistakes on every side will happen, but when you can process mistakes with them, and in doing so, model reasoning skills, boundaries, self-worth/individualism and respect, that can be the difference between an experiment and an overdose or worse.
Prevention is primary, but your child will likely have questions at some point about someone who is already struggling, maybe it’s a friend or family member. That is a prime opportunity to teach your child about the dangers of substances as well as the compassion necessary in helping loved ones overcome addiction.
Instill in your children early and often that there are many kinds of people in this diverse world, and each has value – everyone struggles in both different and similar ways. Make choices that will create connection, an independent yet balanced mind, and sense of purpose. By talking directly and honestly with your child, they are more likely to respect your rules and advice about alcohol and drug use. For more information, visit www.PennFoundation.org.