Focus on the Family

Talking With Your Kids About Drugs and Alcohol

by Glenn Williams

By now you probably know that drugs and alcohol present an insidious threat to your children. But did you know that you are the crucial element in preventing your children from suffering the harm that substance abuse can bring? Healthy communication at home is the best means of setting your children down the path to a promising future free of alcohol and drug abuse.

If I were teaching this material to a roomful of parents, this is the point where I would expect a voice to pipe up in about the sixth row. "Excuse me," the voice would say. "I get what you've been saying, but I have a question: How do I get started in talking with my children about drugs and alcohol?"

And that would be a very good question. So we'll be looking at some key guidelines that will get you going.

You'll learn how to make conversations on this topic a regular component of your parent-child relationship. After all, teaching your children about the dangers of drugs and alcohol shouldn't be so much an event as a part of your normal conversation. To single out one exchange that makes you feel as though you've "done your duty" misses hundreds of opportunities to reinforce the importance of what you want your child to understand.

One day a few months ago, I was in the car with my 10-year-old son, Ben, and we were creeping along on a highway past an accident site. Ben had never seen anything like the scene and was curious — and more than a little disturbed.

"How could something like that happen, Daddy?" he asked.

"Sometimes people are careless when they are driving," I answered. "They don't think properly and do silly things."

I was going to let the matter go at that. But then a light went on in my head.

I continued, "People do lots of different silly things. For example, drink too much beer or wine. That's not good for them and makes them do things they regret later on. Maybe the driver who caused this accident was drinking too much."

A little later in the conversation I mentioned that the legal age to drink where we live is 21.

Ben asked, "Why do I have to be 21 years old to drink alcohol?"

I said, "Because people tend to be more responsible at that age than when they are younger. They don't drink just to be cool in front of their friends."

Just one little comment in the middle of a normal conversation. But added to a lot of other comments made over the years, it will help Ben to understand deep inside that he's better off not messing with drugs or drink.

Each of us should keep open lines of communication with our children and, wherever appropriate, work in messages about drugs and alcohol. That kind of conversation comes naturally as part of healthy relationships and in turn helps to build healthy relationships.

But it all starts with having the right determination.

The Power of Saying, "I Will!"

You make intentional, responsible decisions every day. You might decide to set the alarm clock before you go to sleep at night so that you can get to work on time. You might decide to give up your daily latte so that you can save money for the new car your family needs.

And you're just as intentional and responsible when it comes to your role as a parent. You might restrict the television your children are permitted to watch. You might check to make sure they are doing their homework.

Well, consider this: In the same way you make deliberate choices each day about routine things, so you need to decide to prepare your children for what they will face in regard to drugs and alcohol. The simple point I want you to remember is that you need to be intentional.

From the moment your children reach an age where they are observing everything around them, interpreting and storing that data for future decisions, you must make a conscious decision to get involved in the lives of your children. Think carefully about the information and values you want to teach your children. Choose to talk to them in ways that will be of help to them later on.

We'll be getting to the what and the how of starting communication with your children a bit later. But before that we have to consider the when.

Never Too Early

You should be communicating reliable information about drinking and drugs as soon as possible, even in your children's preschool years.

by Glenn Williams

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.

Factor This In

Every child has a mix of risk factors and protective factors in his or her life which determine the potential threat of drugs and alcohol entering a child's life.

by Glenn Williams

In recent years there has been a significant amount of research highlighting both risk factors and protective factors for young people regarding decisions they might make in critical areas of life, including whether to use drugs or alcohol.1 The fact is, every child has a mix of risk factors as well as protective factors in his or her life. These determine the potential threat of drugs and alcohol entering a child's life. Let's take a look at both kinds of factors and why it is helpful for you to understand how they interact in your child's life.

Risk factors. These are things that put a child at risk of making poor decisions or engaging in unhealthy behaviors. Risk factors for children include:

When factors such as the ones listed above touch a child's life, that child is much more at risk of making a poor decision in regard to drinking and drug use. Add to this mounting pressure from his peers, and it becomes even tougher for a child to make the right decision.

Therefore, as a parent, one of your top priorities must be to try to minimize the presence of these risk factors, better preparing your child for the challenges he'll face as he moves into adolescence and beyond.

Protective factors. These are things that help children achieve developmental milestones relative to their age and therefore be more resilient when negative influences appear. Some protective factors include the following:

Although children with more risk factors are at risk of engaging in drug use or other problem behaviors, it doesn't mean they will automatically engage in high-risk activities. The presence of protective factors can balance and buffer the risk factors.

At a time when your child may be going through many changes and stresses, building these protective factors into your home life and relationship with your child will help her to be stronger when facing the challenges of adolescence. That's why it's important to understand and respond to the factors that are influencing your child.

And that's still not all. I've saved the most important truth for last.

Tips for Building Protective Factors

Consider these practical ways you can be intentional in building protective factors into your child's life:

1Raymond P. Daugherty and Carl Leukfeld, Reducing the Risks for Substance Abuse: A Lifespan Approach (New York: Plenum, 1998).

Reasons for Educating Yourself

As you educate yourself about drugs and alcohol, you will feel more capable when talking to your child about the issue.

by Glenn Williams

Parents who want their children to listen to them must be able to deliver a message with credibility. Older children, in particular, will know it if their parents are talking about something they don't really understand. And even if children don't realize at the time that they are being told inaccurate information, they certainly will later on as they become more informed by experience or their peers.

One day when I was speaking in a classroom, a girl named Lori shared how her mother had tried to discourage her from smoking marijuana by telling her that her hair would fall out if she did. Lori blurted out, "If that was true, then half my class would have no hair!" The entire class burst into laughter.

What a mistake Lori's mom made by inventing this false "fact"! She had found a sure-fire way of losing credibility with her child.

And that is why my next guideline is know your stuff. You have to educate yourself about the different kinds of drugs and alcohol as well as the effects of those substances on the human body.

The good news is that today there are many books a parent can purchase to learn about the range of drugs available to their children, the different names used for drugs, and what effect they may have on a young person. The Internet is also an invaluable resource for parents seeking more information.

As you educate yourself about drugs and alcohol, you will feel more capable when talking to your child about the issue. And when you feel this way, you will be better able to reason with your child, gently correct her perspective if it is based on untrue information, and increase her confidence in you.

Other reasons for knowing the facts about drugs and alcohol include the following:

It will enable you to take advantage of opportunities that arise. Remember the saying "A scout is always prepared"? The same should be true for you.

There will be times when you have unexpected opportunities to talk to your child about drugs. More than likely you won't be able to excuse yourself from the conversation because you want to research the Internet for information. Not being ready with reliable and relevant information will result in a missed opportunity to be a positive influence in the life of your child.

It will make your children more open to listening to you. Your child is more likely to listen to you because what you are saying is trustworthy. You'll get the hearing you want.

Already I can hear you saying that evidently I don't know how temperamental your child can be. He or she won't listen no matter how reliable your information is!

It's true that nothing, not even having accurate information, surpasses the importance of having a strong and healthy relationship with your child. However, when your child is finally in a place to hear you, at least you will know that the information you are sharing with your child is reliable.

It will help you to be more objective and less reactive. The more you know about drinking and drugs, the more rational you can be in talking to your child about them. You'll be less tempted to explode out of anger, fear or frustration.

Engaging in a battle of words with your child, or becoming irrational, will cause you to lose influence on your child's decisions. That's the last thing you want.

It will show your child that you care. There are evenings when I come home from work tired and flop into the lounge chair to watch some meaningless television so that I don't have to think. When bedtime comes, I hustle the kids into bed, telling them that it's too late to read them a story. (What that means is, the commercial break is almost over!) I turn toward the door, only to hear "Daddy, we forgot to say our prayers." (Now I'm thinking, The commercial break is finished and I'm going to miss some crucial part of the program I was watching.)

So I know what it's like. We parents are often so tired that just getting ourselves and our kids through the day seems like an achievement. And yet — believe me — they know when we aren't paying them the attention they deserve.

That's why when you educate yourself on the subject, making an effort to understand your child's world and how illegal substances can harm it, your child will take notice. Most of the time, when we make an effort with our kids, they benefit from the investment we have made.

You will become aware of resources that can help you. Taking the time to learn what you need to know about drugs and alcohol invariably means talking to other parents, teachers, coaches and pastors. You never know when you might find an ally in your efforts, and that's a wonderfully reassuring thing.

In a beautiful way, parents seeking information and practical skills for themselves become a resource and support to each other. And this is only one of many great reasons to be sure you know what you're talking about when you discuss drugs and alcohol with your kids. But just as important as having the right information is knowing how to use it.

Rules for an Effective Conversation

Think about what kind of communication will get your message about drugs and alcohol across effectively and always leave the door open for further conversations.

by Glenn Williams

Remember, I said that talking with your kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol should be an ongoing conversation with them. My last guideline for you, then, is this: Plan for an effective conversation. That is, think about what kind of communication will get your message across effectively and always leave the door open for further conversations.

Below are some tips to help you maximize opportunities to engage your child in conversation.

Keep it private. We all remember at least one time from our childhood when our parents enraged us by sharing something embarrassing about us in front of our siblings or friends. It wasn't the right time or place for that kind of communication. One principle I have tried to put into practice with my colleagues at work is also one I try to apply at home: Affirm in public, rebuke in private.

Likewise, as our own children get older, they become extremely self-conscious and sensitive to what we say when their friends are around. If we fail to recognize this, we can be armed with the best information and it still won't hit the target or get the result we are looking for. That's why we need to wait for those moments when we have our children to ourselves to bring up the sensitive subject of substance abuse.

Seize teachable moments. Sometimes you may have to create an opportunity to talk with your kids about this subject. But if you're paying attention, you will also find that occasionally events occur that naturally lend themselves to conversations about alcohol and drugs. Your daughter informs you that someone offered her a shot to drink at a party. Your son's sports hero is fined for doping.

If an opportunity arises for you to constructively address the issue of drugs and alcohol with your child, don't put it off, thinking that you will raise the issue later. Seize the moment! Another opportunity like the one you have now may be a long time in coming. Better to say something now than to regret not having said it and see your child suffer the consequences.

Don't underestimate the power of context and timing in getting your message through to your child.

Be sensitive to your child's needs. You want the conversation to be constructive. So make sure you conduct it in a way that is as comfortable as possible for a child.

For example, you don't want to pick an awkward time for the conversation. Ask yourself whether this will be the time when your child will be most responsive to what you want to discuss. Is he in a hurry? Is he distracted by something else? Is he under stress or pressured by homework or exams? Is he tired?

Make sure it's a two-way conversation. Let's be honest. There are few things so deadening as being cornered in a one-way conversation where all you can do is listen and hope that you don't have to endure it too long. Similarly, imagine how your child feels when you're the one doing the cornering!

It is important to give your child an opportunity to ask questions without having to fear judgment or have you constantly interrupt and tell him he shouldn't think that way. Encourage him to open up and share his thoughts and how he is feeling about what you are saying. It helps to reinforce the message you want him to hear. What may appear to be straightforward to you may not be so clear to him.

Ask open-ended questions. Ever tried to have a discussion with someone and all you got were one-word responses to your questions — "Yes," "No," "Maybe"? (If you have a teenager, you could probably add that these responses are interspersed with the occasional grunt!)

To make the conversation more meaningful for you and your child, think of how you can ask questions that require your child to think and engage with you. Open-ended questions often start with words like who, what, when, how, or why. Try questions like these with your children:

Admit it when you're stumped. It is easy to be caught off guard by a question from your child that you are unsure how to answer. Rather than stumble through an awkward and incorrect response, it is better for you to acknowledge that you don't know the answer and promise that you will look for information and talk about it again later.

This and the other guidelines for an effective conversation can help you make the most of the conversations you have with your kids about drugs and alcohol. After all, your goal is not to check off another parenting task completed. It is to really influence your child's perspective on drugs and alcohol over time.

Over time — that is indeed how our conversations with our kids about this subject must take place. As I said earlier, we need to start early with our kids and then stick with it.

Using Words Wisely

  1. When was the last time I sat down and had a meaningful and unhurried conversation with my child?
  2. Do I have a tendency to criticize my child in front of others?
  3. What words have the greatest positive impact on my child? When was the last time I used those words?
  4. Have I been sharing my time with each of my children or been too focused on one?
  5. Do I really listen to my child, or have I tended to dominate conversations?

Next Steps and Related Information

Additional information to help you prevent substance abuse in your child

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