Just Say What?
Blue Nikes. Mercedes Benz. Black Panthers. Do these terms mean anything to you beyond designer athletic shoes, luxury cars and ’60s counterculture? They may to your kids. They’re types of the drug ecstasy – pills cut and stamped in ways that are alluring to youth – and such street drugs can be easier for kids to obtain than alcohol or tobacco.
Parents and kids often don’t speak the same language, especially when it comes to illegal substance use. But parents do have the strongest voice when the time comes for a child or teen to say yes or no.
“The severe problem of substance abuse in this country will not be solved in courtrooms or government chambers – but in living rooms and across kitchen tables,” says Joseph A. Califano Jr., chairman and founder of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at New York’s Columbia University. Califano launched the nation’s anti-smoking campaign as U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Carter.
His new book, How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid: The Straight Dope for Parents (Fireside, 2009), promotes “Parent Power” – the all-important influence that parents have over kids, for better or worse. Although the book focuses on the “dangerous decade” of ages 10 to 21, Califano believes parental messages begin on day one.
“If Dad comes home and throws down three martinis after work, by the time that baby is 3 years old, he or she has learned that’s how you relax,” Califano explains, pointing to the link between such role modeling and the child’s propensity to binge drink in high school.
So how and when should an actual conversation about substance abuse begin? A preschooler might ask, “Mommy, what are you drinking? Why?” Califano recommends being honest, focusing on facts and approaching the topic in ways appropriate to your child’s interests and development. Leslie Pickard, who manages a SMART Moves prevention program for Boys & Girls Clubs, advises paying special attention during crucial transition times: the first year of middle and high school and periods of change such as a move or divorce.
It may be challenging to find the right time to open up discussions about drugs, but here are a couple of situations that may present an opportunity to talk to each age group.
“You know that professional baseball player who used steroids? Not only is that cheating – steroids can affect your body in harmful ways such as…”
Califano urges parents to use sensitivity in talking to kids during the elementary school years. “Don’t dump more on the child than he or she is ready for.”
Pickard promotes using activities to break the ice, to find out what your kids already know and to correct misconceptions. “Begin the conversation with coloring sheets or games such as hangman that can reference the issues of drug use, stranger danger, candy and medicines, and harmful household substances.”
Topical cartoons and book series such as the Berenstain Bears can help kids develop resistance skills. Teach kids to express their feelings, practice healthy habits, respect and stand up for themselves and others, and ask a trusted adult for help.
“I was watching a movie and one scene showed kids drinking at school. What do you see happening at your school? How do you feel about it?”
Use entertainment media or social-networking technology as springboards for more serious, ongoing conversations – not lectures – with kids in their tween years.
“Scare tactics don’t work, and kids often want to break rules,” Pickard reveals. “Don’t just provide kids with a way to retaliate or rebel against your demands. Instead, concentrate on building your child’s knowledge base about what is potentially harmful.”
Debunk common myths about the gateway drugs of tobacco, alcohol and marijuana, and defuse marketing techniques aimed at hooking young consumers. Involve your kids in activities with positive peer influences, and foster talents and interests they wouldn’t sacrifice to get high.
“Why do you think someone your age would want to smoke marijuana?”
If you can’t describe the physiological effects of marijuana to your teenager, visit a library or Website, such as teens.drugabuse.gov, together. Califano reminds parents to listen as much as talk. “Sometimes an open mind and an open ear are the best things you can bring to a conversation with your teenager,” he writes in How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid.
Engage teens and their friends in creative activities at home, says Pickard. “Don’t keep your children totally sheltered through lack of information. Give them the tools they need to remain safe.”
If you’ve laid the foundation for open communication, you’ll be speaking the same language when the talk turns to the risks and realities of adolescence.
Jenna Samelson Browning is a freelance writer and editor.
All author royalties from the sale of How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid: The Straight Dope for Parents benefit the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Visit author Joe Califano’s Web site at straightdopeforparents.org for more tips and resources on talking to your kids about drug use.
Did You Know
Illicit drug use has generally been on the decline over the last few years, according to federal statistics, but it’s still a serious problem. In 2008, for example, 11.3 percent of 10th-graders reported using an illicit drug (other than marijuana) over the past month.
Meantime, adolescent use of marijuana and prescription drugs continues to sound alarm bells. Among the prescription medications being abused are amphetamines, sedatives/barbiturates, tranquilizers and opiates other than heroin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The Dreaded Question
Has your child asked whether you’ve done drugs yourself?
Califano believes something must have happened to trigger this question, and that the child is sorting out what to do himself. Without judgment, quietly divert the focus back to the child by inquiring, “What makes you ask?” Then tailor your response to the situation.
But don’t lie about past drug use. Discuss mistakes made and why you hope your child won’t repeat them, but don’t feel obligated to disclose all the gory details. If you haven’t used, emphasize that research has shown us that illegal drugs are bad for us, even if we haven’t used them ourselves.