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Steps Parents Can Take to Protect Their Children from Alcohol and Other Drug Use

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

1) Model Healthy Behavior

First and foremost, parents and caregivers need to model healthy behaviors around alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. It's important that parents are abstaining from illegal drugs and tobacco, as youth pay more attention to what their parents do than what their parents say. While many adults may choose to indulge in occasional alcohol use, it's important that youth observe their parents and other adults using alcohol in a responsible way. This means parents consume alcoholic beverages infrequently and only in moderation. Parents should not drink to the point of intoxication, and youth should observe their parents strictly avoid drinking and driving either by using public transportation, or having a sober designated driver when socializing with friends. If parents feel they are struggling with their own alcohol, tobacco, or drug use, they should make attempts to get help to address these issues. Parents can find help at websites like www.smokefree.gov or http://findtreatment.samhsa.gov.

2) Talk to Youth About Tobacco, Alcohol, and Other Drug Use

chat bubblesParents also need to talk to their youth early and often about substances such as tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs. Some parents fear that talking with their youth about alcohol and other drugs "puts ideas into their head." But parents must understand that youth are talking about alcohol and other drugs with each other. Therefore, parents' silence on the subject is ill-advised, and may appear to communicate parental indifference to drug use. Furthermore, youth are talking about, and even experimenting with these substances at younger and younger ages. Therefore, parents should begin talking with their children about tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs around ages 11-12 years, even though this may seem may seem too early for such a discussion.

It's important that the conversation is a two-way discussion, and not just educational lectures. Parents should listen to their children talk about these substances, and parents should communicate their understanding of children's thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about drug use. Children should be encouraged to discuss their opinions about people's decisions to use drugs, and to discuss their curiosities and questions about drugs. Parents can use these conversations to educate youth about the risks of drug use and these conversations can help youth to identify how drug use can negatively impact their plans, goals, and dreams. Despite the fact that youth need to be educated about the risks, parents and other guardians should not rely on scare tactics to deter youth from using drugs, as youth will still experience temptations to experiment, and have a keen desire to fit in with their peers.

Furthermore, like most important topics, parents should not rely on a single discussion. Instead, these issues will need to be discussed throughout the teen years because youth may encounter new temptations and may forget or minimize the risks of experimentation as they mature. Parents often struggle with how to initiate these discussions. Current events in the news can be a good springboard for discussion (for example reports of drug use by a famous sports icon, or movie star). Similarly, popular movies and television shows often touch upon the topic. Parents and youth can discuss how drug and alcohol use affected a character in the movie or television show. Or, if drug and alcohol use was inaccurately depicted (for instance humor surrounding drunkenness) parents and youth can discuss the realities that were omitted or distorted.

3) Practice and Rehearse Refusal Skills

Parents and youth should expect that at some point, someone is going to offer them a cigarette, an alcoholic drink, and an illegal drug or other intoxicating substance. Many youth are caught off-guard and acquiesce simply because they were not prepared for handling such a scenario. For this reason, parents can help their youth practice assertively declining such an invitation through the use of role plays.