Focus on the Family

Reducing the Risk for Substance Abuse

Tips for protecting your kids from drug, alcohol and tobacco use.

from The Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition & Fitness

Drug abuse is so widespread in our culture that you cannot expect to isolate your child from exposure to it. However, as with diseases caused by bacteria and viruses, you can institute "infection-control measures" by taking specific steps to reduce the likelihood of contact with drugs and to build your child's immunity to using them. These measures should be ongoing, deliberate and proactive:

1. Model behavior you want your children to follow. 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 are looking to their parents for cues as to what is acceptable behavior, while at the same time developing the discernment required to understand what moderation is all about.

2. Build identity and attitudes that are resistant to drug use. This is an ongoing process, beginning during the first years of your child's life. Specifically:

3. Begin talking early about smoking, alcohol and drugs. Because experimentation with drugs and alcohol commonly begins during the grade school years, start appropriate countermeasures in very young children. A 5-year-old 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 in a movie or TV program. When intoxication is portrayed as humorous (as in the pink elephant sequence in the movie Dumbo, for example), don't be shy about setting the record straight.

4. Keep talking about smoking, alcohol and drugs as opportunities arise. Make an effort to stay one step ahead of your child or adolescent'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. If a famous person is dealing with the consequences of drug use (such as being dropped from a team or suffering medical or legal consequences), make sure your kids hear the cautionary tale.

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 also from your kids and their friends. If you hear that a group of kids are smoking, drinking, inhaling or injecting drugs, talk about it. What are they using? What consequences are likely? Why is it wrong? What help do they need?

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 one or more adolescents at home most need your input. If you're too overworked, overcommitted and overtired to keep tabs on the home front, you may wake up one day to find a major drug problem on your doorstep.

5. Don't allow your child or adolescent to go to a party, sleepover or other activity that isn't supervised by someone you trust. 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 children know you will pick them up anytime, anywhere – no questions asked — if they find themselves in a situation where alcohol or drugs are being used. And be sure to praise them for a wise and mature decision if they call you for help.

6. Have the courage to curtail your child's or adolescent's contact with drug users. The epidemic of drug abuse spreads person to person. Whether a recent acquaintance or a long-term bosom buddy, if one (or more) of your teenager's friends is known to be actively using alcohol and/or drugs, you must impose restrictions on the relationship. You might, for example, stipulate that your adolescent can spend time with that person only in your home — without any closed doors and only when you are around.

However, 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 this lifestyle, declare a quarantine immediately. By all means, if your teenager feels called to help a friend climb out of a drug quagmire, don't allow him to try it alone. Work as a team to direct that person toward a recovery program.

7. Create significant consequences to discourage alcohol and drug use. 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 her own immortality, especially when other compelling emotions such as the need for peer acceptance are operating at full throttle.

You can improve the odds for your child by making it clear that you consider the use of cigarettes, alcohol or illegal drugs a very serious matter. Careful judgment regarding punishments will be necessary, of course. If your adolescent confesses that she tried a cigarette or a beer at a party and expresses an appropriate resolve to avoid a repeat performance, a heart-to-heart conversation and encouragement would be far more appropriate than summarily grounding her 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. You can make the bitter pill less threatening by pointing out the following: