Eleven year-old Aaron Finkelstein remembers his parents talking to him about drugs when he was in pre-school. They didn’t sit him down for a serious talk, the Cherry Hill, NJ fifth grader recalls; it was more informal. His mom, Sally says she and her husband have used opportunities that crop up in daily life to discuss drugs, alcohol, and cigarette use with Aaron and his siblings, Mitchell 13, and Natalie, 6. According to experts, the Finkelsteins are right on target.
Start the Conversation Early
Today, kids begin experimenting with drugs younger than ever before, with 8% of 12 year olds using drugs, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Even children as young as 8 and 9 years old are getting in on the act, trying drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. Alcohol and cigarettes are also drugs, and need to be included in any conversation about drugs.
Michael Bradley, Ed.D, a psychologist specializing in children and adolescents and author of four books, says that a parent must start the conversation when the child is very young – even toddlers - because our kids are raised in a drug culture. Parents must help develop their child’s belief system that drugs are something to avoid.
“Controlling is easy, it’s short-term, and it doesn’t work,” insists Dr. Bradley. “You want to get them to have a belief system that drugs are really stupid. It’s not cool, sexy, fun, or harmless as it’s presented in the culture.”
The D.A.R.E. program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), a school program designed to give kids the skills they need to avoid involvement in drugs, gangs, and violence, starts in the fifth grade. “While most kids don’t get involved with drugs at that age, when they get into middle school, they really start getting exposed to it,” explains James McGivney, Regional Director, D.A.R.E. America, Mid-Atlantic States (PA, DE, NJ, VA, WVA.) “This prepares them for their entrée into middle school.”
How to Start the Conversation
As the Finkelsteins have figured out, an out-of-the-blue conversation won’t work, it needs to be relatable for your child. When you see a character on television drinking or an article in the paper about someone overdosing on drugs, use that opportunity to begin the conversation. “Say to your kids, ‘What do you think about this?’” suggests Dr. Bradley. “Try to get them to start to share their beliefs.”
Take advantage of teachable moments when they present themselves. Having an open rapport with your children is especially important, and that often comes from spending mealtime together. “It’s been proven that if you have dinner with your kids every night, that’s the best prevention tool that there is,” adds McGivney.
Show your children facts about the effects of alcohol and drugs on teen brains from sites such as www.samafoundation.org/youth-substance-addiction/effects-of-drugs-on-adolescent-brain. Or, join your child in playing games related to the topic at www.teens.drugabuse.gov/havefun/index.php.
About 50 percent of fifth graders in the region are visited by a D.A.R.E. police officer each year. That is a great time to have a conversation with your child about what he learned in the program. If you don’t have D.A.R.E. in your school, there are many opportunities to casually get the conversation started at many age levels. Check out www.getsmartaboutdrugs.com/prevent/getting-started-talking-about-drugs for more tips on how to get the conversation started.
Then, when your child is older, you will be prepared to set ground rules. Remind her that your expectation is that she is not going to use drugs. Create a plan together to help her get out of uncomfortable situations. For example, Dr. Bradley recommends that if she encounters alcohol at a party, she can text you ‘911.’ That will be your cue to call her and say that there is a family emergency and she must come home right away. She won’t have to explain to her peers her true reason for leaving.
What to Do When You Find Your Child Has Used Drugs
First, you need to figure out how serious the situation is. The trend today is to mix alcohol with energy drinks, which allows the teen to drink a lot without seeming very drunk. Watch to be sure the child is getting increasingly intoxicated. If you feel secure, both of you should go to bed, knowing that you will have a conversation in the morning.
The next morning, when the child is sober and you are calmer, ask your child what she learned. Avoid losing your temper and be sure to maintain a line of communication. If you are lucky, she will say she was really stupid and she’ll never do it again. In the worst case, you will have do decide if your child needs treatment and explore those options. Your child’s guidance counselor is an excellent resource.
Sally Finkelstein hopes she is never faced with her children experimenting with drugs, but she hopes they will come to her if they find themselves in trouble. “We try to promote open communication,” she says. “If one of my kids experiments with something and isn’t feeling right, we hope he calls us and knows we’re there for him.”
By the Numbers
• Marijuana use increased among 8th graders between 2009 and 2010
• In 2010, 21.4 percent of high school seniors used marijuana while 19.2 percent smoked cigarettes.
• Past-year nonmedical use of Adderall and over-the-counter cough and cold medicines among 12th graders remains high at 6.5% and 6.6%, respectively.
• Alcohol use decline among high school seniors falling from 43.5% to 41.2% and alcohol binge drinking (defined as 5 or more drinks in a row in the past 2 weeks) declining from 25.2% to 23.2%.
source: National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2010