Growing Up Drug-Free: A Parent's Guide to Prevention – 1998

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Chapter 5: How To Teach Your Child About Drugs

Preschoolers

It may seem premature to talk about drugs with preschoolers, but the attitudes and habits that they form at this age have an important bearing on the decisions they will make when they're older. At this early age, they are eager to know and memorize rules, and they want your opinion on what's "bad" and what's "good." Although they are old enough to understand that smoking is bad for them, they're not ready to take in complex facts about alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Nevertheless, this is a good time to practice the decision-making and problem-solving skills that they will need to say "no" later on.

Here are some ways to help your preschool children make good decisions about what should and should not go into their bodies:

Kindergarten through third grade (5 — 8 years old)

A child this age usually shows increasing interest in the world outside the family and home. Now is the time to begin to explain what alcohol, tobacco, and drugs are, that some people use them even though they are harmful, and the consequences of using them. Discuss how anything you put in your body that is not food can be extremely harmful. How drugs interfere with the way our bodies work and can make a person very sick or even cause them to die. (Most children of this age have had real-life experiences with a death of a relative or the relative of someone at school.) Explain the idea of addiction — that drug use can become a very bad habit that is hard to stop. Praise your children for taking good care of their bodies and avoiding things that might harm them.

By the time your children are in third grade, they should understand:

Grades four through six (9 — 11 years old)

Continue to take a strong stand about drugs. At this age, children can handle more sophisticated discussion about why people are attracted to drugs. You can use their curiosity about major traumatic events in people's lives (like a car accident or divorce) to discuss how drugs can cause these events. Children this age also love to learn facts, especially strange ones, and they want to know how things work. This age group can be fascinated by how drugs affect a user's brain or body. Explain how anything taken in excess — whether it's cough medicine or aspirin — can be dangerous.

Friends — either a single best friend or a group of friends — are extremely important during this time, as is fitting in and being seen as "normal." When children enter middle or junior high school, they leave their smaller, more protective surroundings and join a much larger, less intimate crowd of preteens. These older children may expose your child to alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. Research shows that the earlier children begin using these substances, the more likely they are to experience serious problems. It is essential that your child's anti-drug attitudes be strong before entering middle school or junior high.

Before leaving elementary school, your children should know:

Rehearse potential scenarios in which friends offer drugs. Have your children practice delivering an emphatic "That stuff is really bad for you!" Give them permission to use you as an excuse: "My mom will kill me if I drink a beer!" "Upsetting my parents" is one of the top reasons preteens give for why they won't use marijuana.

Teach your children to be aware of how drugs and alcohol are promoted. Discuss how advertising, song lyrics, movies, and TV shows bombard them with messages that using alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs is glamorous. Make sure that they are able to separate the myths of alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use from the realities, and praise them for thinking for themselves.

Get to know your children's friends, where they hang out, and what they like to do. Make friends with the parents of your children's friends so you can reinforce each others' efforts. You'll feel in closer touch with your child's daily life and be in a better position to recognize trouble spots. (A child whose friends are all using drugs is very likely to be using them, too.) Children this age really appreciate this attention and involvement. In fact, two-thirds of fourth-graders polled said that they wished their parents would talk more with them about drugs.

Grades seven through nine (12 — 14 years old)

A common stereotype holds that teenagers are rebellious, are ruled by peer pressure, and court danger even to the point of self-destructiveness. Although teens do often seem unreceptive to their parents as they struggle to become independent, teens need parental support, involvement, and guidance more than ever.

Young teens can experience extreme and rapid shifts in their bodies, emotional lives, and relationships. Adolescence is often a confusing and stressful time, characterized by mood changes and deep insecurity, as teens struggle to figure out who they are and how to fit in while establishing their own identities. It's not surprising that this is the time when many young people try alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs for the first time.

Parents may not realize that their young teens feel surrounded by drug use. Nearly nine out of ten teens agree that "it seems like marijuana is everywhere these days." Teens are twice as likely to be using marijuana as parents believe they are, and teens are getting high in the places that parents think are safe havens, such as around school, at home, and at friends' houses.

Although teens may not show they appreciate it, parents profoundly shape the choices their children make about drugs. Take advantage of how much young people care about social image and appearance to point out the immediate, distasteful consequences of tobacco and marijuana use — for example, that smoking causes bad breath and stained teeth and makes clothes and hair smell. At the same time, you should discuss drugs' long-term effects:

Grades ten through twelve (15 — 17 years old)

Older teens have already had to make decisions many times about whether to try drugs or not. Today's teens are savvy about drug use, making distinctions not only among different drugs and their effects, but also among trial, occasional use, and addiction. They witness many of their peers using drugs — some without obvious or immediate consequences, others whose drug use gets out of control.

To resist peer pressure, teens need more than a general message not to use drugs. It's now also appropriate to mention how alcohol, tobacco, and other drug consumption during pregnancy has been linked with birth defects in newborns. Teens need to be warned of the potentially deadly effects of combining drugs. They need to hear a parent's assertion that anyone can become a chronic user or an addict and that even non-addicted use can have serious permanent consequences.

Because most high school students are future oriented, they are more likely to listen to discussions of how drugs can ruin chances of getting into a good college, being accepted by the military, or being hired for certain jobs. Teenagers tend to be idealistic and enjoy hearing about ways they can help make the world a better place. Tell your teens that drug use is not a victimless crime, and make sure they understand the effect that drug use has on our society. Appeal to your teen by pointing out how avoiding illegal drugs helps make your town a safer, better place, and how being drug-free leaves more energy to volunteer after school for tutoring or coaching younger kids — activities the community is counting on.

Your teenager may be aware of the debate over the legalization of marijuana and whether or not doctors should be able to prescribe it for medicinal purposes. The idea that there might be legitimate health advantages to an illegal drug is confusing. Now that your teenager is old enough to understand the complexities of this issue, it is important to discuss it at some point — perhaps during a teachable moment inspired by a news report. You may want to let your teen know that the ingredient in marijuana that has some medicinal value — delta-9- tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — can already be prescribed by doctors in a pill form that doesn't contain the cancer-causing substances of smoked marijuana. Other medical painkillers include codeine and morphine, both of which have been determined safe for prescription use after rigorous testing and review by scientific medical organizations.

It is important that parents praise and encourage teens for all the things they do well and for the positive choices they make. When you are proud of your son or daughter, tell him or her. Knowing they are seen and appreciated by the adults in their lives is highly motivating and can shore up their commitments to avoid drug use. Your teen may also be impressed by the importance of serving as a good role model for a younger brother or sister.

Questions children frequently ask about drugs

Q. Why would people want to put bad things into their bodies?

A. One answer might be that they might not realize how dangerous the bad things are; another is that they are not taking care of themselves. Sometimes people start using a drug just to see what it feels like, but it can turn into an addiction (like cigarettes) and it's very hard to stop.

Q. Why are some drugs good for you and some drugs wrong for you to take?

A. You can discuss how drugs are powerful chemicals that change the way you feel. Doctors prescribe medicine to make sick people better — these are "good" drugs. "Bad" drugs are ones that aren't given by doctors and don't make you better; in fact, they can harm your body. That is why it is wrong to take these "bad" drugs.

Q. Why can't I taste that "grown–up" drink?

A. A small amount of alcohol has a much greater negative effect on a child's body than on an adult's; even a small amount can sicken a child.

Q. Did you smoke marijuana when you were young?

A. Don't give your child more information than necessary. If the answer is "yes," give the reasons why you feel you made a mistake; for instance, it made you feel out of control, you missed schoolwork, messed up in sports, let down your friends or lost touch with them. Also explain that more is known about the harmful effects of marijuana and other drugs now.

When your child enters middle school or junior high

This year is both an exciting and challenging time for children. They're little fish in a big pond and desperately want to fit in. Because your children may now see older students using alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs and may think they are cool and self-assured, your children may be tempted to try drugs, too. Drug use goes up dramatically in the first year of middle school or junior high.

No matter where you live, your children will be exposed to all kinds of drugs from now on, so you need to be familiar with all the information about drugs that they may be receiving. The names of drugs and methods of manufacture and ingestion change constantly, so look over the pictures of drugs, paraphernalia, and slang terms on the drug chart on pages 34-39. At this time when peer approval means everything, your children may make you feel unwelcome. But while your children are pulling away from you to establish their own identities or may seem to be embarrassed by you, they need you to be involved in their lives more than ever before.

To help your children make good choices during this critical phase, you should:

Drug Myths vs. Reality

While you are teaching the facts about drugs, your child is getting lots of misinformation and mythology from peers. Be aware and be ready to address the half-truths and misinformation that children hear and believe, such as:

Myth: Marijuana is not harmful because it is "all natural" and comes from a plant.

Truth: Marijuana smoke contains some of the same cancer-causing compounds as tobacco, sometimes in higher concentrations.

Myth: It's okay to use marijuana as long as you're not a chronic user or "stoner."

Truth: Occasional use can lead to frequent use.

Myth: Because sniffing powdered heroin doesn't require needles, it isn't very risky (40% of the high school seniors polled do not believe there is a great risk in trying heroin).

Truth: Heroin is dangerous no matter how it's ingested. Once addicted to heroin, users may eventually switch to injecting the drug because it's cheaper.

Myth: Drugs are not that dangerous and I can handle it.

Truth: Drug use is extremely unpredictable and affects people differently. Anyone can become addicted to drugs.

Myth: Everyone is doing it.

Truth: Research shows that more than four out of five eighth graders have not used drugs in the past month. Even among high school seniors (the group with the highest rate of marijuana use), only a quarter of those polled in a national study reported using the drug in the last month. In any given school, most students aren't doing drugs.

Medical marijuana update

If your teen is interested in the debate about whether or not marijuana should be legal in certain circumstances, you can state the facts: Voters' referenda are appearing in some states to legalize marijuana for medical use.

Some supporters of medical marijuana are genuinely concerned with exploring the potential for providing sick people with relief from their suffering; others are using the issue to change drug laws in America and to legalize illegal drugs, principally marijuana.

To protect consumers, medical protocol is set by health authorities and not determined by popular vote. The Food and Drug Administration withholds approval of a drug until studies strongly indicate that it is safe and effective for its intended use. Unless such studies determine that marijuana used medically fits that description, the American Medical Association recommends that the drug not be prescribed or used for medical purposes.

Tobacco and teens: a bad combination

Unfortunately, increased awareness about the hazards of tobacco smoking has not deterred many teens. In fact, the percentage of high school seniors who smoke has gone up since 1983. One reason may be that teenagers are notorious for not worrying about death — it seems a long way off. They may even convince themselves that by the time they're adults, cancer and the other heart and lung diseases that smoking causes will be cured.

If you discover your son or daughter smoking, experts say you should tell him or her to quit immediately and that smoking is not tolerated. You need to be firm but supportive; let your child know you realize that breaking tobacco addiction is difficult for anyone, regardless of age. Understand that a child who is an addicted smoker may relapse and will need encouragement. Although relapses on the road to abstinence may recur, always make it clear that quitting is imperative. If your child can't seem to quit independently, seek help from your family physician who may prescribe medication or direct your child to an anti-smoking program.

Five sons — many lessons

Marty H., Cincinnati, Ohio, married, father of five sons, ages 8 to 18:

"My wife and I became concerned about our oldest son when he was a sophomore in high school. He started changing friends, and we suspected that he might be using drugs. So we attended a workshop run by a local parents' group. We started talking about drugs with and around the kids; now we don't shy away from the topic. We're not evangelical, but we state firmly how drug use is unacceptable in our house. We've also tried to lower the decibel level here and to listen to each other better. We manage to have dinner together several times each week.

"We also learned that it's helpful to give your kids an excuse to say 'no' to drugs. They can say 'I'd love to try it. I'm as cool as you are, but my parents are wackos!'

"Since we attended the workshop, our son has really come around, and his grades are consistently good. The younger boys haven't gone through any rough spots, and I think it's due in large part to what we're doing at home. My wife and I were kids of the '60s, and I think a lot of us fear seeming hypocritical. But I'd rather have my child think I'm a hypocrite and be alive and have a chance to mature and grow older."


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[Your Child's Perspective] [Table of Contents] [What To Do If You Think Your Child Might Be Using Drugs]