When And How To Talk To Your Child About Drugs And Alcohol
A Difficult But Important Conversation
As a parent, it may be uncomfortable to bring up serious topics with your children. Talking about topics such as drugs and alcohol can feel daunting to even the most prepared parents. Historically, speaking about the danger of substance use has sometimes been overlooked as a topic for someone else to deal with, or “not appropriate” for family discussion.
This has resulted in children receiving their primary sources of information on substances through television, movies, music, and other mediums that are often filled with stereotypes and misinformation. However, research has shown that the earlier parents start to have these intimate discussions, the more effective they can be in preventing serious substance misuse in the future. So, how can you talk with your child about drugs and alcohol, and when is the right time to do so? Here’s what you should know before having this important conversation.
Overcoming The Barriers
When asked about their reasons for not engaging in conversations surrounding drugs and alcohol, parents often say they felt “unprepared,” and that someone with “more expertise” should handle the topic. This can result in an overreliance on school settings to teach facts about substance use, which does not substitute for the personal connection that a conversation with a family member has.
Most behavioral health professionals say the main barrier to this conversation is a lack of open communication in the home. It is imperative to allow for open, honest discussion of important topics (being they are age appropriate) without judgment or hostility to promote healthy learning in the home. When children feel comfortable asking about uncomfortable topics they don’t understand, it can promote a safe place of learning through discussion versus feeling lectured by their parents.
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When Is The Right Time?
In a perfect world, the first conversation around the concept of drugs and alcohol would happen as soon as a child asks about substances or has seen a substance (like a cigarette on TV). Realistically, a conversation by the time the child has finished elementary school (5th grade) and is entering middle school (6th grade) would be an opportune time to talk about drugs and alcohol.
This is an important time in their development as many begin to enter puberty, which is highlighted by changes in both physical and emotional needs. This period is considered higher risk for children that associate with other children who are engaging in substance use or other unhealthy behaviors they have observed in their homes.
In recent years, there has been an increase in educational programs targeting children from 6th grade and older to reduce the risk of substance use within many school systems. However, depending on the family environment, it may be important to begin having discussions even sooner.
Having The Conversation
Removing the barriers from the household through open communication is one of the most important actions a parent or caregiver can provide. Having an honest and in-depth conversation with your children will most likely yield greater results than directive statements like “never use drugs or alcohol.”
As most parents know, the older children get the less open they are to being given directions without deeper communication occurring. The goal of the conversation is not to be an expert, but someone with real-life experiences hoping to shed light on what they know about drugs and alcohol.
This can be an excellent time to discuss any family history of substance use or mental health conditions that can be exacerbated by substance use, which can help prepare your children to be more informed of future decisions and potential consequences of using drugs or alcohol.
Risk Factors And Warning Signs
There is a possibility a child may have an increased likelihood of engaging in substance use while in adolescence, which the behavioral health field calls “risk factors.” These factors relate to the environment that the child grows up in and is commonly associated with during their formative years.
“Warning signs” is the term used to describe the physical, emotional, and behavioral signs that may be demonstrated by a child who has begun to struggle with substance use. There are various forms of risk factors and warning signs which can include:
Risk Factors For Substance Use Disorders
- Family history of substance use or addiction.
- Active substance use occurring in the home.
- Family history of behavioral health conditions (depression, anxiety, etc).
- Experiencing traumatic events such as abuse, major accidents, or the loss of a loved one.
- Lack of parental supervision or engagement, limited boundaries in the household.
- A high rate of crime or violence in the local environment.
Warning Signs Of A Potential Substance Use Disorder
- Poor hygiene or change in appearance.
- Appetite fluctuations.
- Significant fluctuations in weight.
- Changes in personality/attitude that appear out of place.
- Losing interest in activities they once enjoyed.
- Skipping school or other responsibilities.
- Acting despondent or aggressive.
- Legal issues/encounters with law enforcement.
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Don’t Wait To Talk With Your Child
The lists above are not exhaustive of all possible risk factors and warning signs; however, they are commonly reported concerns by parents who believe their children may have begun using drugs or alcohol. It is also important to note that many of these warning signs can be seen as common occurrences as children enter puberty.
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Continue to keep a close eye on your children if you have concerns, and if enough concerns arise, it is important to consider the possibility of seeking professional help. If you feel your child may need professional assistance, the time to seek help is now. There are treatment programs available for people of all ages. Speak with a treatment provider today to discuss treatment options.
Travis Pantiel, LMHC, MCAP
Travis Pantiel is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a National Board-Certified Counselor with specialized expertise in the co-occurring disorder treatment field.
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