Talking to your kids about drugs and alcohol early and often is one of the best defenses against substance abuse problems later on. Understandably, many parents struggle with how to navigate these conversations. How do you approach the subject and at what age? How do you make sure your child is really listening and understanding the gravity of the issue? These are questions many of you are probably asking. Today we offer the first of 2 blog posts with some guidance.
In order for any conversations to really be effective, it’s important to have a relationship with your child where you can have open exchanges…a relationship where your child feels safe having an honest conversation with you. A punitive or overly intense parental approach can result in a defensive and secretive child. On the other hand, a hands-off approach where there are no boundaries or consequences can be equally as adverse. There’s a happy medium where a child feels protected, accountable and most importantly, comfortable speaking to you about these issues in an open and honest way. If you can find that midpoint, you’ve laid the groundwork for productive dialogue.
Often we hear from parents who say they had “the talk” with their kids about the perils of drugs and alcohol. That’s what we call the “one and done” approach. Unfortunately, that’s often not enough. It’s important to have ongoing conversations, starting at an early age. For example, during pre-teen years, you might begin by pointing examples out to them. If you come across a person who is obviously inebriated and acting so, you might tell your child that “that person has had too much to drink.” You might also use stories in the news to engage them in conversation. For example, a high profile overdose or car accident caused by substance abuse is a springboard for discussion. Take advantage of these everyday teachable moments. In addition to being an opportunity to get across a message, it reinforces the fact that the subject of drugs and alcohol isn’t taboo…you’re comfortable talking about it and you child can be, too.
As they get older (teens into 20’s), this is an opportunity to shift the focus onto their own behavior and choices. Because the rational part of the brain (the one that controls judgement) is the last to fully develop, even the most responsible teens can lack good judgement. One great way to help during this time is is to present various scenarios and discuss the options. For example, if they go to a party with their pal Johnny and Johnny has too much to drink and wants to drive home, what would they do? Discuss with them the real risks and options. Options might be: 1) call us and we’ll pick you up, any hour of the day, 2) call a cab or Uber, or 3) call an aunt or uncle who has also agreed to be available in situations like this. By reviewing potential stressful situations and discussing the best course of action, your child will be prepared to make a smarter decision when and if the situation comes up.
It’s also helpful to look at the real consequences of various scenarios. For example, if your child is an avid athlete who loves his sport, does he realize that getting in trouble for drugs or alcohol could lead to suspension from the team and the games he loves? Simply understanding real-life implications like these can be very motivating.
The most important thing to remember is that trust between you and your child is fundamental. If he or she knows that you have his or her best interest at heart, they’ll be more likely to listen and you’re well on your way to a productive dialogue.
Check back next week for additional tips and know that we are always here to help.