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When parents are uncomfortable with a particular topic, or when they aren’t precisely sure what to say, they tend to avoid the issue in everyday conversation. Instead they relegate it to a single uncomfortable “talk,” during which they hope to somehow accomplish all that needs to be said and all the teaching that needs to occur in one ?fell? swoop. This is a flawed approach for so many reasons.

First of all, kids form their habits and beliefs on the basis of repetition and reinforcement. So having “the talk” with your kids once or twice and then assuming this will counter all the other messages they get from peers, media or culture is simply folly. Such one-off speeches are entirely ineffective. Either you need to be having these conversations on a regular basis, or you might as well not have them at all. Avoiding the topic or rarely discussing the issue also makes something (anything) more uncomfortable to talk about. Which means both you and your children will be reluctant to do so.

Talking to kids about drugs and alcohol needs to be something you do on an ongoing basis, not something you do once or twice and then leave alone, assuming that you’ve covered your bases. Ways of broaching these discussions in everyday conversation are elaborated on in our section How To Talk To Kids About Drugs.

When should you start talking to kids about drugs and alcohol?

Parents should be having these conversations from the moment their child can begin having elaborate conversations, which is typically the preschool years. If your child is five and you have yet to have a conversation about drugs and alcohol, you’re already behind the curve. If they’re 8 and you’ve only had one conversation, you’re at least several dozen conversations too short. If they’re in junior high and you’re just now broaching the subject, it’s like trying to enter a race when others are on their final lap: You’ve got a lot of ground to make up.

Studies have found that experimentation with drugs and alcohol first starts to really pick up between the grades of 4 and 6, which means that by the latter grades of elementary school, your kids may already be facing these issues. So an anti-drug foundation needs to be firmly established by then. The good news is that talking to kids about drugs and alcohol doesn’t have to be hard, and you can start making up this ground at any time.

Talking to kids about drugs: Some ground rules

1. Always be honest and truthful with your children. Even preschoolers can handle any topic that might come up in regards to addiction, so long as you explain it in the right way. Information doesn’t harm them; a lack of it is what puts them at risk.

2. If they ever ask something you aren’t sure about or don’t know how to answer, it’s okay to say “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know the best way to answer that. Let me think about the issue and get back to you. “The n think it over and do research if necessary, and get back to them.

3. Don’t resort to scare tactics, which are both ineffective and unnecessary. There are plenty of sound arguments against substance abuse without resorting to exaggeration.

4. Never insinuate that drug users are bad people. This isn’t true, and it puts an invisible blockade between you and your child. They are bound to have friends using drugs, and if they ever get involved themselves, such messages will ensure you’re the last person they come to for help. As if this weren’t enough, such a message also causes a child to underestimate their own propensity for falling into a bad habit. If people with drug problems are “bad” people, then surely they have nothing to worry about. Always refer to drug users as ordinary people, and do so in an empathetic, non-judgmental way. Make it clear that addiction is a problem anyone can fall into under the right circumstances.

5. Talk openly and regularly about the topic, but not so much to the point that you seem obsessed. Going overboard on the issue may backfire, making kids more likely to experiment precisely because you’re making such a big fuss over it.

Having “The talk”: How to bring up the topic of drugs and alcohol with your kids

Parents shouldn’t rely on a single “talk” to be an all-encompassing or effective means of drug prevention education, but there may be times you want to bring the topic up on your own or have a more formal conversation about drugs and alcohol. Here are some suggestions that will help that conversation go more smoothly:

1. A 2010 report by the National Center on Addiction & Substance Abuse at Columbia University noted that teens were more likely to talk to their parents in the car than almost any other place. So this is an ideal time to broach the subject.

2. Don’t try to talk to them when they are busy or preoccupied with something else. This will make them antagonistic towards the conversation from the very beginning. Approach them at their convenience, not your own.

3. Start by asking them what they know, and then go from there. Be inquisitive and ask lots of questions:

  • What do you know about drugs?
  • Have you heard of spice?
  • What’s your impression of marijuana?
  • Why do you think people use drugs?
  • What’s the worst drug, from what you know?
  • Which drugs do you think are most popular at your school, and why?

4. Be inquisitive yet non-judgmental. It should sound like a conversation and not a lecture. When you want to get a warning across, explain it in terms of your worries: “You may not understand this, but parents worry constantly about the potential of their kids to fall into addiction” or “It’s every parent’s worst nightmare that they’ll get that call that their child is dead because of drugs or alcohol.

5. Don’t be naive. Understand that kids are going to lie and tell you precisely what they think you want to hear, just as they pretend to be disgusted about the sexual escapades of their peers whenever you try to bring the sex topic up. (“A girl who would have sex at a party? How disgusting! I would never do that.”)

Kids aren’t stupid: They’re well aware of the roles in the household.
You’re the warden and they’re the inmates. They also know you better than you know yourself. After all, they’ve spent their whole life studying you intensely, and are perfectly aware of what the “right” answers to your questions are. They’ll intentionally give you as little information as possible. So don’t assume you’re in the clear just because your kid seems to have all the right answers. Don’t question their responses or accuse them of beign less than forthcoming, (though it is okay to ask if that’s what they really think or is what they know adults want to hear), but also understand that you’re not going to get the complete picture of what goes on.

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