Who among us hasn't been faced with this cringe-worthy scenario: You're watching a family movie with your kids, and a scene involving excess smoking, binge-drinking, or some manner of illicit drug use comes on the screen. You (slowly and surreptitiously) glance at your kids, to see if their demeanor changes, watching like a hawk for anything that would indicate that they know what's going on. Maybe you see an eye flicker, or the upturned edge of a smile. Maybe they chuckle, and you wonder whether you're going to have to address the issue.
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When it comes to kids and drugs, we need to consider addressing drug use to be as important as having the "birds and the bees" conversation. While it might be uncomfortable talking to your kids about drugs at first, and while you may not want to acknowledge the fact that yes, even your good-natured, well-mannered, A-student of a child could possibly be doing something they shouldn't, if you don't have the conversation, you may very well be doing your kids a tremendous disservice in the long run. Nothing could be worse than waking up one morning and realizing that your child is now a major drug user and potentially even addicted, all because you didn't feel up to discussing it.
Never—ever, ever—underestimate the power of a child's curiosity. Children are absolutely fantastic at discerning when adults think that something is taboo, and that makes them all the more curious about it. Speaking about drugs in whispers or waiting until the kids go to bed only serves to fuel a dangerous obsession with figuring out what you're hiding. Squash that curiosity by addressing the issue directly. If you address it directly, it becomes far less interesting, and possibly even boring, which is the best scenario!
Studies show that kids understand the things that they see in television and movies far earlier than we think, as their brains are like super sponges, soaking up all external stimuli and making deductions/connections based on context clues far, far faster than we can as adults. Therefore, it's far better to talk to children about illicit substance abuse before they are exposed to it.
Studies show that kids as young as 9 years old can already start viewing alcohol in a positive way, and roughly 3,300 kids as young as 12 try marijuana each day in the United States. Additionally, about 5 out of 10 kids as young as 12 get their hands-on prescription pain relievers for nonmedical purposes. So the moral of the story is-the earlier you start talking, the better.
Remembers to take the age of each child you may be speaking to into account. With preschoolers for instance, you can casually talk about drugs in the course of teaching them other important life skills; you can mention that you shouldn't take any sort of medications that don't come in an official medication pill bottle, and that don't have your individual name on them. While you have to keep it simple with really young children, slightly older children will be able to understand the differences between medicinal and non-medicinal drugs and will be better able to hear about and digest the negative side effects.
Should you talk to your children alone or with the assistance of your parenting partner? There's no one-size-fits-all answer. Whichever parent is better able to have an open, honest and non-judgmental conversation with that particular child is the better bet. Though if you feel like you can both do so evenly, there's nothing wrong with talking about it together as a family, as long as the child never feel ganged-up upon or put on the spot.
No matter which parent leads the discussion, children appreciate honesty. If you deal with them honestly on the subjects that you find difficult, you'll find that they deal with you honestly on the subjects that THEY find difficult. This is the spot where you want to be, always with an open line of communication, and the discussion of any subjects allowed.
It's important, once you've decided to talk to your child about drugs and drug use, to do it in the right environment. There's no perfect spot, but pick somewhere that is calm, quiet, and where your child will be comfortable.
Children tend to be the most at ease speaking about difficult things when they can be engaged in some kind of activity. (Kids are energetic beings, and if you try to make them sit still as a statue to discuss something difficult, their nervous energy will manifest and make the situation harder.) Consider taking a walk, taking a swim, even playing basketball. (Anything where they can have a specific activity that is also quiet enough where you can discuss things will work.) You could even bake a cake or wash the dog. Just give them something to do with their hands so that their heart and brain can actually concentrate on what you're saying and digest it.
Even if you have evidence that your child has tried drugs before, try your best not to accuse. If your child feels accused, they may not feel comfortable being completely honest with you. Instead, continue asking questions and accepting their answers. Remember, it's a conversation, not a lecture. And, encourage them to ask questions of you, as well. It's important that you are able to be the one to educate them about drugs and not kids at school, what they see in television or movies, or some other source. If they feel comfortable enough to come to you with questions, you'll be assured they are getting the right information.
Make sure to talk specifically to your child about peer pressure in the context of trying drugs and in the context of life in general. If they know about peer pressure and are able to give it a name, they will be far more likely to recognize it when they encounter it. And as much as you might not want to, make sure you share your own stories of being offered drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes and talk about how you reacted. If you turned down the offering in spite of the peer pressure, great! Let them know how glad you are that you were strong enough to say no. And if you didn't turn it down, talk to them about how the experience was, how you were feeling when it happened, and what you wish you'd done differently.
If you've used drugs heavily in the past, be open with your children about the full extent of it. Hiding it will only hurt your credibility. Tell them about any regrets you have about the heavy drug use, and what the drugs felt like when you were using them. Make sure you tell them about the negative affects the drugs had on your life at large. You talking about your experience may very well save them from making mistakes of their own. And, if you happen to be in recovery yourself from drugs or alcohol, talk to them about that honestly too. It's important for them to understand that there is a risk of becoming addicted, and what better role model to learn from than their own parent?
Also, it's vital that you remain aware of the medications your children see you take. There are lots of reasons why adults may take totally legitimate medications, and most adults have a couple drinks here or there. Children see and notice far more in the home than we realize, so talk to them about which medications/substances you're taking and why.
Talking to your kids about drugs isn't an one-and-done conversation. It works best when you have lots of little conversations, and an open-door policy of discussing anything at any time. If you make talking about difficult subjects (like drug use) a normal and regular thing, pretty soon it won't be difficult anymore. So, make it part of your everyday conversation. You can even designate a time during the day to bring it up. Maybe it's Fridays, when you pick your child up from school and are driving home to start the weekend. Or, maybe it's on Saturday morning when you're having breakfast together. Whenever is best for you, make it a convenient thing so that discussing it becomes normalized and routine.
When you venture into speaking to your kids about drugs you may just find that they know more than you do. (Remember, as stated above, children are sponges and absorb far more than we think they do.) But to discover this, you have to give them the opportunity to speak. Ask them questions, lots of them. Make sure they know that you are truly interested in what they have to say. Be prepared to hear and digest, and accept anything they have to tell you, even if its difficult. If they sense that you are open to hearing their honest answers, they won't feel as though they need to hold anything back.
Additionally, make a commitment to truly listen. It sounds simple to say, but it's vital. Sometimes adults only listen long enough so that they can then jump in and start talking, and this isn't truly listening at all. Don't just wait for them to finish their sentence so you can jump at the chance to scold or educate. Listen to the actual, individual words they say and then give yourself a moment or two to process what they said and what they actually mean before you begin speaking. The conversation may go a bit slower, but if you focus on listening to the individual words, you'll ensure that no nuance is lost in what they are trying to convey and in the subtext that might be underneath what they said. Likewise, if you hear them speak in a way that (even casually) glorifies misuse of a substance, address it right away. Say back to them what they said and ask them if that is truly what they meant. If it is, explain to them that what you heard sounds like they are talking about drugs as if they are cool, and since we know them to be harmful, there's a big problem with thinking about and speaking about them that way.
Some easy questions to get the conversation started are below, but you can surely think up plenty on your own, based on knowing your own child. You can even use movies and tv as a jumping off point. If you see a scene involving drug use, ask your child what they saw on the screen, and how it made them feel. Ask them how they think the character might have been feeling, and why they think that character might have been using drugs.
Sometimes having "the talk" doesn't work, and kids still try drugs anyway. This is the whole point of making sure that you are able to have open lines of communication with your children at all times. The reality is that more likely than not, kids are going to try drugs and alcohol. But the hope is that if and when they do, they'll feel comfortable about (and maybe even look forward to) telling you about it and getting your feedback. The ideal scenario is that if they try a drug, they come to you immediately afterward and you discuss it. This will be far more likely to prevent repeated drug use, and therefore any addiction that might develop. By talking about drug addiction early, you give your child a powerful weapon against drug addiction that may very well save their life.