NSLAP WELLNESS TIP: Talking to your kids about drugs and alcohol

The following is an article excerpt from Homewood Health™, your health and wellness provider.

One of the challenges we face as parents is coaching our children to make smart choices and good decisions concerning drugs and alcohol. We want them to exercise discernment and to keep themselves safe and healthy. And yet once our children pass a very young age (probably somewhere in their first or second year), we no longer exercise control over their behaviours and can only hope to influence them. The more they grow up, the more this is true.

It is hard for many of us to accept that our children encounter situations and risks that put them in the path of danger – and that we cannot always be there to pull them out of the way. When the risk they are exposed to is related to the use of drugs and alcohol, we can find ourselves overwhelmed – not knowing how to be helpful, what to say or how best to be heard by our ever-so-cool but ever-so-vulnerable pre-teens and adolescents.

There isn't one definitive answer to this dilemma, but the following tips can be helpful in guiding you to find your way through this part of parenting:

Start early. Teaching our children the value of good health and how to care for themselves respectfully begins from day one.

Starting with the way we bathe our babies, through to the steps we take to ensure our toddlers don't have access to toxic or poisonous household items, we give our children the message their well-being is important. When they are gradeschoolers, we encourage our kids to understand the value of good nutrition and to make a connection between their food choices and their health and energy levels. We teach them traffic rules so that they can ride their bikes safely. These parental behaviours set the stage for later discussions about drugs and alcohol.

General conversations with our children about the negative impacts of drug use (referencing tobacco, alcohol, street drugs and over-the-counter drugs such as cold remedies, Tylenol, etc.) should occur before they reach 10 years of age. Typically, these conversations will originate from everyday incidents (such as when Grandma goes out to the porch to smoke a cigarette or Dad reaches for a beer after a tough day at work), and the focus of the conversation will be on the negative impact of putting certain chemicals into their bodies and the potential harm they expose themselves to.

Listen and coach – don't lecture. Since most of our children will first encounter peers who are using tobacco, alcohol or street drugs somewhere between Grades 6 to 9, having an open and honest conversation about the risks entailed in substance abuse needs to take place by age 10 or 11. In this conversation, it is more important to listen and ask questions rather than providing too much information. Asking questions such as, "Are there kids in your school who use drugs?", "What do you think about this behaviour?" or "What do you observe about these kids?" is likely to take you further than if you provide a lecture on the dangers associated with illegal drug use. Your goal is to open the door for discussing your child's strategies for decision making and keeping safe – not to shut down communication by delivering an emotional lecture about drug-using youth. Keep yourself informed and share realistic information with your children about the risks of using drugs and alcohol.

Providing sensational information about the danger of "the evil weed" is only likely to undermine your credibility as a source of information. Most of us don't have to look too far to find examples of the high costs individuals and families pay for substance abuse – draw on these examples to illustrate your concerns to your child.

Most kids report they drink and use drugs to feel good, forget about their problems and/or to fit in socially. By listening well, you stay connected with how your kids are doing and if they may be feeling socially or emotionally isolated. Encouraging them to choose healthy and positive outlets to meet their social and recreational needs can help to lessen their vulnerability to substance abuse. If they do run into trouble, seek help to address problems quickly to minimize the potential for further harm.

Set clear, appropriate and enforceable limits. Contrary to popular belief, parents do have a great deal of influence over their children's behaviour. Let your children know what you expect regarding their use of drugs and alcohol – basing your expectations on the child's age and demonstrated trustworthiness, and your own values and practices. An expectation of total abstinence from all illegal substances and legal substances until the age of majority is a reasonable limit to set and not, as your teenager may try to tell you, a sign of early dementia! It is important that you consider your own habits and behaviours when you are setting limits – are you modelling the behaviour you expect to see in your children? Are you setting a double standard for yourself and your children? If so, you can expect to see push back!

Consider the following guidelines for setting limits:

  • they need to be reasonable;
  • they should be discussed and agreed to in advance;
  • they must be understood by everyone;
  • they are simple to follow; and
  • they are consistently applied.

When the limits you set are challenged (and you can anticipate they will be!) they need to be followed by natural and logical consequences, which escalate appropriately if the misbehaviour persists. Because it is natural for children to test limits, it is wise to set limits that ensure the punishment will fit the crime. For instance, if you have told your 14-year-old that you expect him to let you know where he will be and who he is with, and you find out that he's misrepresented the truth (saying he is at a sleepover when in fact it turns out he was at a field party consuming alcohol) – the next time he arranges a sleepover, he needs to be aware that you will call to confirm this plan with his friend’s parents. Letting him know his attendance at another field party means he will forfeit his drum lessons (or some other privilege) will hopefully encourage him to make better choices in the future. You then have to follow through with these consequences in a consistent and calm manner – to have positive influence on your child's negative behaviour.

If you are still concerned about how to speak to your child about drugs and alcohol, or if your own history and experience with substance use leaves you uncertain of where to start, help is available. Contact your family doctor or EAP to get hands on support. Your library can provide you with resources in the form of books, CDs and local resources. Your community may be able to offer either specialized counselling resources for substance abuse, or Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon Family Groups where you may find assistance.

Like every other parent, you are doing your best to raise your children to make good decisions, including smart choices about substance use. You don't have control over their behaviour, and it’s true that societal and peer influences can present a challenge. But don't underestimate your ability to shape your children's behaviour by modelling the values you want them to hold, and by reinforcing your kids every time you catch them "doing it right"! The next time you see your child exercising a choice in favour of his or her own good health – celebrate it! This is the flip side of talking about drugs and alcohol.

For more information and support with kids and drugs or alcohol, along with resources and counselling to improve your health and wellness, visit the NSLAP website at www.nslap.ca. Please note that NSLAP is your “company” name when you register. When you call the LAP number at 1 866 299 1299, your call will be answered any time, day or night, 365 days per year.