One day Tony, a father I had been talking to, asked me, "When would be the best time to begin talking to my children about drugs?" Although his children were still preschoolers, he didn't want to miss the opportunity to teach his kids before they began to be influenced by others around them.
Tony was open to the idea that conversations about drugs and alcohol should begin when children are young. Unfortunately, I have met many other parents who have waited to discuss the topic until their children are in high school. That's a mistake. True, it's better late than never. But it's best early than late.
I strongly recommend that you don't let your children reach the turbulent adolescent years while still in ignorance about the risks of alcohol and drug abuse. You should be communicating reliable information about drinking and drugs as soon as possible, even in your children's preschool years.
Would you wait until your child is past puberty to discuss with him the realities and responsibilities of sex? Would you wait until your child turns 16 and drives the family car onto the highway to teach him how to drive? No, of course not. And neither should you let your child get to the point of greatest vulnerability to drugs and alcohol before presenting the topic in the way you want your child to learn it.
Here's the key when it comes to discussing drugs and alcohol with your child: start early and stick with it.
Of course, you have to communicate at an age-appropriate level. For example, if you were to suddenly start talking to a 6-year-old about the dangers of heroin, it would be beyond her ability to comprehend. But you could help her understand that smoking cigarettes is not healthy and causes people to get sick. This would help her start thinking about taking care of her body by choosing carefully what she puts in it.
Age-appropriateness also applies to the way you go about communicating. Sitting your 9-year-old child down in front of you and giving him a 30-minute lecture is not the best way to get your message across. Not only will he not appreciate the significance of your message, but also your misusing an opportunity to talk to your child will make it harder for him to listen to you next time. Briefer messages worked nonthreateningly into everyday conversations will work better for this boy.
The thing to remember at this point is that, as parents, we need to anticipate the challenges and needs of our children before they arrive at the most critical juncture of attraction to drugs and alcohol. And we need to get started right away.
Understanding the individual situation each of our children faces will help us know what to do.