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Talking to Your Kids About Drugs

Andy Buccaro

Andy Buccaro, LADC, LCSW

Executive Director

Center for Change

  Timing is key when it comes to braving substance prevention talks with your child. Knowing “when” is half the battle; the other half is “how.” Unfortunately, the “when” part of the equation is probably younger than you think. The average age that a child first tries alcohol is 12; for marijuana, it’s 13. Children become curious at an even younger age. Some experts posit that it’s not out of the question to begin preventative talks with a child as young as six years old. Much of this will depend on your role in the child’s life (i.e. if you are a parent, teacher, coach, etc.), and on your value system. Some individuals are comfortable speaking with a child as young as six, others are not. Whatever the case may be, how you discuss the issue is as critical if not more so than when. This newsletter will give you an overview of how you can prepare to talk to your children about substance prevention and some ideas on “teachable moments” and techniques. Prepare. Preparing to talk with a child requires more work early on, but can pay off by saving a lot of time and energy. First and foremost if you’re not familiar with the developmental stage your child is in, spend some time learning about this. For example if you’re talking to an adolescent it’s important to know some of the typical developmental behaviors. You’ll avoid potential conflict and reserve resources if you take time to do this. Giving your six-year-old a dissertation on substance abuse may be good practice for you but will have zero preventative impact. An additional preparation step is to be well informed about the topic you’re covering. In this case we’re discussing substances, so you want to have good concise information from a reputable source. There is a good deal of misinformation posted out there about substances. If you’re talking to a teen and you offer up a bit of unfounded or outdated information, you’ll lose credibility from the start. A final piece of preparing is to consider what kind of day you’ve had. Are you exhausted, stressed? Consider what kind of day your child may have had. Don’t set you and your child up for failure by trying to force the discussion. If you’re low on resources postpone the discussion Use basic communication strategies. In order to promote the best outcome it’s important to try and communicate with sensory-based I messages: “I care. . .” “I see or hear. . ..” and “I feel.” Again, each family is unique in how it communicates; try and customize this to fit your family’s style. If you have a very different way of interacting with your child you may find him or her looking at you cross-eyed if you start in with: “Johnny I care about you and I see you watching movies that glamorize drugs. I feel worried.” You may find it more your style to say “Hey, I noticed you’re watching Pineapple Express (a recent movie about marijuana), I’d feel a little more relaxed if we could talk about that.” In each of these examples the words are different but the principle remains the same: I-messages coupled with sensory based data which lead to a greater likelihood of effective communication. However, if you truly want to seal the deal make sure that you take advantage of the second part of communication: active listening. In his book From Defiance to Cooperation, psychologist John Taylor uses the metaphor of Mickey Mouse to help adults envision listening: two big ears and one little mouth. In my sessions with parents I often encourage them to try and say what they have to say in a maximum of one or two sentences. As adults-certainly myself included-we spend so much time pontificating to young people that we often fail to notice we’re our only audience. According to Dr. Taylor, to actively listen we need be listening for the feeling in what our kids are saying, state the feeling back to the child, indicate we accept their feel-ing(s), and identify with them. For example if your child says “you’re so annoying,” you would demonstrate active listening by responding “So you’re upset with me” (restate the feeling), “I get that” (accept it), “I know when my parents tried to talk to me about this stuff I thought they were annoying too at times” (identify with it). So, pulling it all together, we would employ I-messages coupled with sensory- based information in a sentence or less, and actively listen for a response. Look for teachable moments. Teachable moments are simply opportunities provided to you to talk with your child about substance use. A scene from a movie, lyrics to a song, taking cough medicine, these are all natural events that happen daily which allow us the opportunity to talk with our children about substances. Notice that the word “moments” is plural. We need to consistently and regularly have these conversations. We don’t have one teachable moment with our children. Establish a clear position on substance use. Ambiguity breeds problems for young people. Don’t allow confusion to be one of the reasons that your child opts to try getting high. Make it clear where you stand on this issue, and state it regularly. Role-play saying “no.” Role-play scenarios with your children in which they will be confronted with the issue of substance use. Work to make them realistic. If you start talking about a guy in a trench coat at a school playground pushing crack you’ll lose your kids attention in a heartbeat. Tease out realistic scenarios, and have them detail what they would say so that they have a response ready for when they do encounter this dilemma. Use age appropriate information and strategies. I mentioned in the opening that some professionals recommend talking to your child as young as age six. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is not an appropriate teachable moment for a six year old. However, when giving your six year- old an aspirin you can explain that medicines are only given to him by his mom, dad or a doctor when he’s not feeling well, and that taking medicines when he is well can hurt his body. The younger the child’s age the simpler the communication. Adapt these suggestions not only to your family’s style, but also to your child’s age. In summary, when talking with children about substance use in a preventative fashion be sure to: 1. Prepare 2. Look for a teachable moment 3. Use basic communication strategies 4. Establish a clear position on substance use, 5. Teach and role play refusal skills, 6. Be sure to customize the delivery of your discussion based on your family’s style and the child’s age. No doubt the topic of substance use is very confusing for children and adolescents. By beginning preventative talks with your child at an early age, you can help sort out all the mixed messages. ……………………………………………………………. Andy Buccaro, LADC, LCSW