PM Pediatrics
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Dr. Christina Johns
Senior Medical Advisor, PM Pediatrics

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An African American man and his 6 year old son together in the park on a sunny day, sitting on a wooden railing, talking, smiling and looking at each other.

How to Talk to Kids About Substance Abuse

I now have a high schooler at home. I sent him off to ninth grade with all the feels: excitement, pride, bittersweet joy, anxiety, and a little bit of fear. He’s a good kid, already playing on the soccer team and in the early innings appearing to be transitioning well, but that doesn’t mean I’M transitioning well. I’ve actually spent a solid number of middle of the night moments worrying about all the teenage things that cause wrinkles and added grey hairs for parents: getting the driver’s license, parties, school pressures, alcohol, and drugs.

Last night around 3:15 AM when I was awake worrying about EVERYTHING (as I’m wont to do), I started to think about the conversation between my son and me about health and wellness, and realized that I started having discussions with him about staying healthy and even drugs and chemicals and substances fairly early on. Definitely by elementary school, and I know many schools have programming specifically addressing this.

So when IS the right time to bring up this topic with kids?

Depends on how you define “this topic,” I think.

When kids are in preschool, I love to hear conversations between them and their parents about being healthy and what that means. We all know that children in this age group are very concrete thinkers and so an effective way to reach them is by saying OUT LOUD what is happening right in front of them, like this:

“I love how well we are treating our bodies right now by picking a healthy snack like this banana.”

Clearly no one expects a 4 year old to necessarily understand the phrase “don’t do drugs” but the notion of “being good to your body” sets the stage for future, more complex discussion about what happens when people do NOT take care of their bodies.

This can be done in many ways, for sure. If you take medicine regularly, explain to your child what you are doing and WHY, so they start to understand the types of reasons why medications are taken. It’s ok to describe in simple terms that medicines can be dangerous and even poisonous, stressing the importance of being under a healthcare professional’s care when taking them.

Modeling is an important aspect of teaching kids to stay away from drugs and alcohol as well.

Think about it: what kind of example are you setting for your child? I’m not trying to be judgy or dictate to anyone whether or not they shouldn’t do things like drink in front of their children, but I think it’s important to note that our kids are watching our every moves and making associations between our behaviors and actions. If kids learn to associate drinking alcohol with a wild, good time, why wouldn’t they think to try it when they are a bit older?

I’m saving the best tactic for last here because I believe this is the most powerful one:

ASK QUESTIONS.

No matter the age of the child. Get into their heads a little. When you see something on TV that might make for a teachable moment, ask your child what they think is happening and then in terms that they can understand explain what’s going on, and why it might be concerning. As children get older into elementary school describing how substances can affect the body over time and even cause death from overdose is a reasonable conversation to have, calmly.

Try your best to check your emotions at the door when you talk about this.

As children get older into elementary school describing how substances can affect the body over time and even cause death from overdose is a reasonable conversation to have, calmly.  A flat, factual tone is really what you’re after: at this age you want to provide information and be your child’s go-to resource. With somewhat regular discussion that’s not always charged with intense feelings this becomes a topic that kids feel ok bringing up and learning what YOU want them to know, which helps your bond and creates resiliency.

You CAN start preparing your child to make healthy decisions about drugs and alcohol when they are still really young.

It’s not in the form of laying down the law or dissecting the effects of different substances, but it IS about doing the following:

  1. Talking about health and making good choices for one’s own wellness.
  2. Modeling healthy habits and behaviors.
  3. Describing why you take medicines and what you do to maintain your own health.
  4. Asking your children lots of questions to find out what’s on their minds and what’s their level of understanding.
  5. Creating a safe space to discuss a charged topic without intense emotions so information can be shared and resiliency can be established.

Let me know how your conversations go; I’m curious and wish you rich discussion!

 

 

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