Drug abuse is so widespread in our culture that you cannot expect to isolate your child from exposure to it. You can, however, take specific steps to reduce the likelihood of contact with drugs and build your child's immunity to using them. These measures should be ongoing, deliberate and proactive.
When it comes to drugs, two adages are worth noting: "Children learn what they live" and "What parents allow in moderation their children will do in excess." While not absolute truths, these maxims reflect the reality that kids look to their parents for cues as to what is acceptable behavior while at the same time they are developing the discernment required to understand moderation. If you smoke, your offspring will probably do likewise. But it's never too late to quit, and your decision to give up cigarettes will make an important statement to all the members of your family.
If you consume alcohol at home, what role does it play in your life? Do you need to drink to unwind at the end of the day? Is it a necessary ingredient at every party or family get-together? If so, your children will get the picture that alcohol is a tension reliever and the life of the party, and they will likely use it in a similar fashion.
If you drink modestly — an occasional glass of wine with dinner or a beer every other week — think carefully about alcohol's role in your family. Many parents decide to abstain while rearing their children in order to send an unambiguous message to steer clear of it. Others feel that modeling modest, non-intoxicated use of alcohol equips children and teenagers to make sensible decisions later in life. Each family must weigh the options carefully and set its own standards.
What about the medicine cabinet? If you are stressed, upset or uncomfortable, are drugs the way you spell relief? Have you accumulated prescription narcotics and tranquilizers that you use freely when the going gets tough? Kids aren't blind. If they see the adults around them frequently taking "legitimate" drugs to dull their pain, why won't they use their own drugs of choice to do the same?
This is an ongoing project, beginning during the first years of your child's life. Specifically:
Because experimentation with drugs and alcohol commonly begins during the grade-school years, start appropriate countermeasures in very young children. A 5-year-old boy may not be ready for a lecture about the physiology of cocaine addiction, but you should be ready to offer commentary when you and your child see someone smoking or drinking, whether in real life or a movie.
Make an effort to stay one step ahead of your child's knowledge of the drug scene. If you hear about an athlete, rock star or celebrity who uses drugs, be certain that everyone in the family understands that no amount of fame or fortune excuses this behavior.
Be aware of current trends in your community and look for local meetings or lectures where abuse problems are being discussed. Find out what's going on — not only from the experts but from your kids and their friends.
All this assumes that you are available to have these conversations. Be careful, because the time when you may be the busiest with career or other responsibilities may also be the time your adolescents at home most need your input.
Don't blindly assume that the presence of a grown-up guarantees a safe environment. Get to know the parents of your kids' friends. Make certain your child knows you will pick him up anytime, anywhere — no questions asked — if he finds himself in a situation where drugs or alcohol are being used. And be sure to praise him for a wise decision if he does so.
The epidemic of drug abuse spreads from person to person. Whether a recent acquaintance or a long-term friend, if one (or more) of your teenager's friends is known to be actively using alcohol and/or drugs, you must put restrictions on the relationship.
Even with these limits in place, you will need to keep track of who is influencing whom. If your family is reaching out to a troubled adolescent and helping to move him toward healthier decisions, keep up the good work. But if there is any sign that the drug-using friend is pulling your teenager toward his lifestyle, declare quarantine immediately.
Teenagers may not be scared off by facts, figures and gory details. Even the most ominous warnings may not override an adolescent's belief in his or her own immortality, especially when other compelling emotions — such as the need for peer acceptance — are operating at full throttle.
You may improve the odds by making it clear that you consider the use of cigarettes, alcohol or illegal drugs a very serious matter. If your adolescent confesses that he tried a cigarette or a beer at a party and expresses an appropriate resolve to avoid a repeat performance, a heart-to-heart conversation would be more appropriate than grounding him for six months.
But if your warnings repeatedly go unheeded, you will need to establish and enforce some meaningful consequences. Loss of driving, dating or even phone privileges for an extended period of time may be in order.
Even in families that hold strong values and practice ongoing drug-proofing, there are no guarantees that substance abuse won't affect one or more of your children. As you begin to cope with the chemical intruder(s) in your home, keep the following principles in mind: