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House Call: Talking to your kids about drugs and alcohol

Talking to your teenagers about drug and alcohol use should not be a one-time-only discussion. (Peter Morgan / AP)
Talking to your teenagers about drug and alcohol use should not be a one-time-only discussion. (Peter Morgan / AP)

Talking to your kids about drugs and alcohol is an important part of being a parent. You want them to be informed and empowered to make responsible choices, and at the same time, you don’t want them to put themselves at risk of addiction, injury, or other bad outcomes.

Your gut reaction may be to go the “D.A.R.E” route and warn your kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and to stay away from them no matter what the circumstances or situations. This may be an appropriate tactic for your initial conversation with young children, but a more nuanced, informative, and interactive approach is needed as young people mature.

My first piece of advice on this subject is that the conversation about drugs and alcohol is not a one-and-done thing. It should be an ongoing topic that is addressed repeatedly in an age-appropriate manner over the years. In addition to giving your kids information, these conversations should involve asking and answering questions by both parties, communication about your expectations, and developing interpersonal skills to practice responding to being offered drugs or alcohol.

Information to cover

Dangers of drugs and alcohol, especially when they are used in too large a quantity or too often.

Dangers of taking prescription drugs that have been prescribed for someone else.

Why alcohol (and here in Washington State, marijuana too) is legal for people older than 21 to use.

Most kids don’t drink or take drugs, even marijuana.

Most adults don’t take drugs and many drink very little if at all.

It is never OK to use street drugs or prescription drugs not intended for them.

Questions to ask

What do you think about drugs and alcohol?

Do you know or think that a lot of your friends use drugs? What about other kids at your school or in our neighborhood? Why do you think that?

Why do you think alcohol and marijuana are legal for people over 21?

Be ready to honestly answer questions about your own drinking and drug use, past and present. Share why, in retrospect, you don’t think it was the best choice for you, and why you would make a different choice if you could have a do-over.

Interpersonal skills

Role play with your children so that they can practice responding to being offered drugs or alcohol.

If you child is comfortable with this, get other parents involved so that your kids can also role play with other children of a range of ages.

Model the behavior you want your kids to emulate.

I can’t overstress the role that your actions play in the choices that your children will make. I saw a young woman recently who is struggling with her marijuana use. She is 30 years old and uses it daily. Her parents used it daily as she was growing up, as does her husband. She wants to quit, she realizes that it is preventing her from making good choices in furthering her life goals, but the continual exposure and normality of it in her family makes it harder for her. Your children are watching you. If you refrain from the use of drugs and alcohol, it is more likely that in the long term they will too, even if they experiment some in their youth.

These repeated conversations that build on each other over time will help your kids see you as a resource of information. It is my hope that when the time comes they will make responsible choices and that they will talk to you about real-life situations when or after they occur. Stay calm so that they will open up to you about why they reacted to a situation the way they did. Talk with them about how the situation made them feel and whether they think they might do something differently the next time. Even if they did not make the choice you were hoping for, a calm and frank discussion about how things turn out may give them the confidence and desire to make a different choice the next time.

Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.


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