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Talking with your child

Do not wait until your child is confronted with drugs and alcohol to begin having the conversation. Talking to your children is one of the most powerful tools parents and caregivers can use to connect with — and protect — their kids. But, when tackling some of life’s tougher topics, especially those about drugs and alcohol, just figuring out what to say can be a challenge. Following are tips for talking to your child at any age.

What to Say to Your 2 to 4 Year Old

Scenario: Giving your child a daily vitamin.
What to Say: Vitamins help your body grow. You need to take them every day so that you’ll grow up big and strong like Mommy and Daddy—but you should only take what I give you. Too many vitamins can hurt you and make you sick.

Scenario: Your kids are curious about medicine bottles around the house.
What to Say: You should only take medicines that I give you. They will have your name on them and that your doctor has chosen just for you. If you take medicine that belongs to somebody else, it could be dangerous and make you sick.

Scenario: Your child sees an adult smoking and, since you’ve talked about the dangers of smoking, is confused.
What to Say: Grown ups can make their own decisions and sometimes those decisions aren’t the best for their bodies. Sometimes, when someone starts smoking, his or her body feels like it has to have cigarettes – even though it’s not healthy. And that makes it harder for him or her to stop. (Parenting expert Jen Singer says the same script applies to gradeschoolers.)

 What to Say to Your 5 to 8 Year Old

Scenario: Your child tells you he was offered prescription drugs by a classmate — but said no.
What to Say: After praising your child for making a good choice and for telling you about it, let him know that in the future, he can always blame you to get out of a bad situation. Say, “If you’re ever offered drugs at school, tell that person, ‘My mother would kill me if I took that and then she wouldn’t let me play baseball.’”

Scenario: Your grade-schooler comes home reeking of cigarette smoke.
What to Say: I think you might have been exposed to cigarettes. Were there people near you smoking? I know you may be curious and want to maybe sometime try smoking, but as you can see, it’s pretty disgusting and can make you cough and gag a lot. Your clothes and your breath and your hair will all stink and it can be super tough to stop smoking once you start.

Scenario: Your child has expressed curiosity about the pills she sees you take every day — and the other bottles in the medicine cabinet.
What to Say: These are all medications for particular health issues and family members. Just because it’s in a family’s medicine cabinet doesn’t mean that it is safe for you to take. Even if your friends say it’s okay, say, “No, my parents won’t let me take something that isn’t for me or doesn’t have my name on the bottle.”

Scenario: One in seven teens in America has tried huffing — inhaling the fumes from everyday items like nail polish remover, hair spray, and cooking spray. It’s probably been a while since you’ve talked to your child about the dangers of the products under the kitchen sink — but it’s important to reiterate the warning.
What to Say: I know it’s been a while since I talked to you about the dangers of cleaning products and that they should only be used for cleaning. But I’ve heard that some kids are using them to get high. I just want to let you know that even if your friends say, “Hey, we can buy this stuff at the supermarket so it’s totally okay to sniff it,” it’s not. Inhaling fumes from cleaners or products are as dangerous as doing all the drugs we’ve talked about.

Now, let’s talk about ways you can get out of the situation if that happens. What do you think you should say? Remember, you can always blame me and say, “My mom would kill me if I tried that!”

 What to Say to Your 9 to 12 Year Old

Scenario: Your child is just starting middle school and you know that eventually, he will be offered drugs and alcohol.
What to Say: There are a lot of changes ahead of you in middle school. I know we talked about drinking and drugs when you were younger, but now is when they’re probably going to be an issue. I’m guessing you’ll at least hear about kids who are experimenting, if not finding yourself some place where kids are doing stuff that is risky. I just want you to remember that I’m here for you and the best thing you can do is just talk to me about the stuff you hear or see. Don’t think there’s anything I can’t handle or that you can’t talk about with me, okay?

Scenario: You find out that kids are selling prescription drugs at your child’s school. Your child hasn’t mentioned it and you want to get the conversation about it started.
What to Say: Hey, you probably know that parents talk to each other and find things out about what’s going on at school…I heard there are kids selling pills –- prescriptions that either they are taking or someone in their family takes. Have you heard about kids doing this?

Scenario: Your child’s favorite celebrity — the one he or she really looks up to — has been named in a drug scandal.
What to Say: I think it must be really difficult to live a celebrity life and stay away from that stuff. Being in the public eye puts a ton of pressure on people, and many turn to drugs because they are confused or feel a lot of stress. But a lot of famous people manage to stay clean –- like [name others who don’t do drugs] –- and hopefully this incident is going to help [name of celebrity] straighten out his life. Of course, people make mistakes –- the real measure of a person is how accountable he is when he messes up. It will be interesting to see how he turns out, won’t it?

The thing is, when a person uses drugs and alcohol — especially a kid because he’s still growing — it changes how his brain works and makes him do really stupid things. Most people who use drugs and alcohol need a lot of help to get better. I hope [name] has a good doctor and friends and family members to help him/her.

 What to Say to Your 13 to 15 Year Old

Scenario: Your teen is starting high school — and you want to remind him that he doesn’t have to give in to peer pressure to drink or use drugs.
What to Say: You must be so excited about starting high school…it’s going to be a ton of fun, and we want you to have a great time. But we also know there’s going to be some pressure to start drinking, smoking pot or taking other drugs. A lot of people feel like this is just what high school kids do. But not all high school kids drink or do drugs! Many don’t, which means it won’t make you weird to choose not to. You can still have a lot of fun if you don’t drink or do drugs.

You’ll have a lot of decisions to make about what you want to do in high school and you might even make some mistakes. Just know that you can talk to us about anything –- even if you DO make a mistake. We won’t freak out. We want you to count on us to help you make smart decisions and stay safe, okay?

Scenario: Every time you ask your teen how his day was, you get a mumbled, “Whatever, it was okay,” in return.
What to Say: Skip asking general questions like “How’s school?” every day. Instead, ask more specific questions on topics that interest both you and your teen (“Tell me about the pep rally yesterday.” “Are there a lot of cliques in your school?” “Fill me in on your Chemistry lab test.”) You can also use humor and even some gentle sarcasm to get the conversation flowing. Try, “Oh, what a joy it is to live with a brooding teenager!” to make your child laugh and start opening up a bit.

Scenario: Your high-schooler comes home smelling of alcohol or cigarette smoke for the first time.
What to Say: “The response should be measured, quiet and serious–not yelling, shouting or overly emotional,” says parenting expert Marybeth Hicks. “Your child should realize that this isn’t just a frustrating moment like when he doesn’t do a chore you asked for; it’s very big, very important, and very serious.” Say, “I’m really upset that you’re smoking/drinking. I need to get a handle on how often this has been happening and what your experiences have been so far. I get that you’re worried about being in trouble, but the worst part of that moment is over –- I know that you’re experimenting. The best thing you can do now is really be straight with me, so for starters, tell me about what happened tonight…”

Scenario: Your teen has started to hang out with kids you don’t know — and dropped his old friends.
What to Say: It seems like you are hanging with a different crowd than you have in the past. Is something up with your usual friends? Is there a problem with [old friends’ names] or are you just branching out and meeting some new kids? Tell me about your new friends. What are they like? What do they like to do? What do you like about them?

 If You Did Drugs

Many parents find it hard to talk about drugs and alcohol with their children because of past experience. Below are some tips to help you have an open and honest conversation.

1. This isn’t about you. We all want to warn our kids against the dangers of drug abuse. But the single biggest reason so many of us are reluctant to start the conversation is because we’re afraid we’ll be asked the uncomfortable question, “Mom, Dad, did you do drugs?” So let’s start by stating the obvious: This isn’t about what you did or didn’t do. It’s about what your child is going to do or not do. So let’s talk about how your personal experiences might help steer your child in a good direction.

2. Experts disagree. For every psychologist who recommends openness and honesty about your past, another advises caution. The fact is, you can say too much. A good place to start is by considering your child. Some kids demand candor. Others are happy just to talk. Use your judgment. You know your kids better than anyone.

3. When to lie. In our opinion? Never. Some parents who used drugs in the past choose not to tell the truth, but risk losing their credibility if their kids discover the real story from a talkative uncle at a family party. Many experts recommend you give an honest answer — or no answer at all.

4. The whole truth? Try to avoid giving your child more information than she or he asked for. (No need to reveal you smoked marijuana 132 times!) This is not a courtroom; it’s a conversation.

5. Say what you mean to say. Like other important conversations you’ll have with your kids, the point you’re trying to make is what really matters. In this case, it’s crucial your kids understand that you don’t want them to use drugs. Don’t beat about the bush: say so. (“I don’t want you to use drugs.”) Then give your reasons why. (“Drugs are dangerous, expensive, unpredictable, distracting.”) And yes, it’s OK to have a lot of reasons.

6. What have you learned? Before you talk, take stock. You’ve lived your entire life in a culture where drugs are a fact of life. From the headlines on TV to your own experiences, you’ve seen too many examples of how drugs can change young lives for the worse. Your own experiences with drugs are just part of the bigger picture. The real opportunity here is to share what you’ve learned.

7. You could say it like this: “I tried drugs because some kids I knew were experimenting, and I thought I needed to try drugs to fit in. It took me a while to discover that’s never a very good reason to do anything. Do you ever feel pressured like that?”

8. Or like this: “Everyone makes mistakes and trying drugs was a mistake I made. It made me do some dumb things. And it’s hard to look back and see that I got anything good out of the experience. I love you too much to watch you repeat bad decisions I made.”

9. Or even like this: “My experience with drugs is no guarantee that you would be the same. Drugs affect everyone differently. So I wanted to share my experiences with you, because even if drugs didn’t ruin my life, I’ve seen them ruin other people’s lives. And God forbid you should be one of those people.”

10. Don’t just talk. Listen. You can anticipate that your child’s first reaction when you raise the subject of drugs will be to be quiet. So do your darnedest to make it a two-way conversation. Ask what they think. Ask if it’s a subject their friends talk about. Ask what they think of celebrities who use drugs. Keep asking questions. And listen to the answers.

11. Stay calm. Whatever happens, try not to raise your voice. If you do lose your temper, try to catch yourself. It’s OK to admit that these conversations aren’t easy for you, either. If things aren’t going well, suggest talking about it again another time. (“I didn’t mean to surprise you or make you feel awkward. Let’s talk again in a day or two.”)

12. Good luck. Yes, it’s difficult to know how to talk to your kids about drugs. You don’t want them to hold your history up as some kind of a precedent to follow, or as a tool to use against you. But you may be able to use your life experiences as a teachable moment. So even if you’re nervous, don’t put off having the conversation. This isn’t about your past. This is about your child’s future.

Thanks to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids for content.