It seems like kids today are being exposed to adult topics, like sex and drugs, at a much younger age than previous generations. In a survey conducted in 2011 of high school youth, the CDC discovered that roughly 8.1 percent of kids in the U.S. had tried marijuana for the first time before age 13, and roughly 20.5 percent had tried alcohol or some other drug. These statistics illustrate the need to talk to your kids about drugs as early as possible.
Starting the Conversation
You should start early. This doesn’t mean that you have to jump right into a complete presentation of the different classes of drugs, complete with visual aids, while they’re still in diapers; but it does mean that you should look at everyday circumstances as an opportunity to open the discussion about drugs.
In children of preschool age you can talk about the drugs they encounter in their everyday lives, like aspirin and vitamins, and why it’s important to only take them as directed, and only when given to them by you, or a doctor or nurse.
You can then segue into explaining why it’s important for them to avoid other people’s medicine, and to stay away from the medicine cabinet.
At this stage your child will likely start sharing stories with other children about the world around them, including stories about sex and drug use. Chances are there will be a child who has a relative with a substance abuse problem, or a child from a family where smoking and alcohol use are more prevalent than in yours. You could also be one of those families.
This age is a good time to broaden the discussion to the myths, and truths, they might encounter on the playground; and to discuss dynamics within your own family.
For example, if your family tends to consume alcohol more freely at holiday gatherings, this is an excellent opportunity to explain why people drink and why it’s important that only adults do it, and that they don’t drink too much.
As your child progresses through elementary school, you can broaden your discussion about drugs to include things like what to do if someone approaches them, how they feel about famous people who have been involved in drug and alcohol incidents (especially if they are considered role models), and some of the dangers of drug use.
Middle School and High School
At this age your child is entering a phase where they are trying to separate from you, and they may become more private or secretive. This is also the age range where your kids will likely try drugs and alcohol.
At this stage it’s best to approach your child on more equal footing. If you have experience with drug or alcohol use from your youth, this is a good time to come clean about it. You don’t have to go into great detail, but let them know that you have been where they are, and the effect it had on you.
For example: “I had my first beer when I was your age. Sure, I’d been told that alcohol was dangerous, but I was totally sure that I would be able to handle it. But it kept getting worse and worse, and it really messed me up for a long time after.”
Also, if you have a history, your kids will eventually find out; knowing that you have kept it a secret from them will undermine your credibility.
This age is also a good time to start setting ground rules regarding drug and alcohol use. For example, if you know that one of their friends smokes cigarettes, you can refuse to let them into your home. Or you can make an agreement with your child that they will not ride in a car if the driver has been drinking or using drugs.
The fact is, kids start using drugs and alcohol for a variety of reasons, and your child is ultimately the one who has to make that final decision. But, by starting early and laying a strong foundation, you can give your child the tools he needs to make an informed decision, and even avoid going down that road at all.