It’s a sad fact that your children will not make it to adulthood without encountering drug use in some shape or form, and it is up to you to provide them with the understanding that they need to just say no. Every parent should have “the drug talk” with their children, but telling your kids, “drugs are bad” isn’t enough – you have to give them the right messages for their age and their personality. Here’s how.
Start earlyIt’s a good idea to prepare your children early for the dangers of drugs. But don’t flood them with information from the outset. “The best strategy for speaking to your children about drugs is to give them information that they can easily understand,” says Clara Monnakgotla, the national community developer and trainer at the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (SANCA).
The best way to start with an anti-drug message for younger children is to stress the importance of healthy living. This means talking to them about healthy eating and exercise, as well as the things they should be avoiding. Although they are socially acceptable vices, drinking and smoking should also be described as undesirable or “for grownups only”.
Clara says that by far the biggest substance use problem facing teenagers is underage alcohol abuse, so don’t neglect educating them about the dangers of drinking. Preferably lead by example, and drink only in moderation in the presence of children.
As and when they hear about other types of drugs, you can add those to the list of substances that are “very unhealthy” and respond to specific questions that they might have with age-appropriate information. For instance, you might explain that they can make you feel bad or can make you sick. Always be willing to respond to questions but keep your message clear – “Drugs are bad for you and you are not allowed to take them.”
Talking to teensBy the time your child is a teenager, they will have heard about drugs from sources other than you. Your job now is to provide them with the information that they need to make the right decisions. Unfortunately, this is not as clear cut as telling them that drugs ruin lives and are bad for their health. You have to resort to some psychological tricks when getting the message across. This is because the teenage brain has not yet developed to the point where it prioritises avoiding risks. Teenagers tend to think that the long-term risks don’t apply to them, or that they can worry about them later.
You definitely need to communicate the long-term risks of drug use (they are listed in the info block below) - just don’t count on them to be a sufficient deterrent. Instead, consider highlighting these current problems that drugs may cause:
Decreased health and fitness: Drugs have a knock-on effect on your overall health. Drug and alcohol abuse can make you less inclined to exercise or participate in team sports. These substances can also make it more likely that you will eat unhealthy foods.
Skin and weight problems: Teenagers tend to worry about appearances. Drugs and alcohol can cause unsightly skin conditions and weight fluctuations. This immediate effect can be a strong deterrent.
Academic challenges: Apathy, exhaustion and “brain fog” from drug or alcohol use can lead to poor school participation and results.
Social complications: While many children take drugs as a result of peer pressure, in fact, the majority of children avoid taking drugs. This means that if your child takes drugs, they will be opening themselves up to judgement from their other peers.
Give them grit“The most important thing you can do for your teenage child is to help them build resilience so that saying no is easier,” says Clara. “Teach them that they have the right to refuse.”
There are many ways that you can help your child to achieve this outcome. One suggestion is to keep them busy with positive activities that they enjoy, which gives them less time to engage in undesirable activities and makes them desire a clear head and healthy body.
Another is to encourage independent thinking. Ask them why they want to do things, and discourage responses like, “because everyone else is doing it.” Give them affirmation for following their own lead and encourage them to analyse their decisions and choices.
Above all, offer them your support and love unconditionally, so that they don’t need to look for validation elsewhere. This does not mean you can’t address faults or talk about issues as they come up, but never let them fear that their life challenges may reduce your love for them.
The right response for your childSome children will accept what you tell them. Others will have lots of questions. Clara says that while you should answer their questions honestly, it’s important not to give them more information than they need. Don’t tell them about drugs they’ve never heard of, for instance, or describe the interesting effects of certain substances in great detail. Always stress the negative aspects of drug use and abuse.
Discuss family addictionsIf you have a family member who has battled addiction, rather than hiding this from your child, it’s important to share the information. Telling them about family struggles with drugs or alcohol will help bring the negative outcomes closer to home. You can also warn them that addiction can run in families, which gives them even more reason to avoid substance use.
Give them a way outDo not assume that your child is not interested in taking drugs or will not be exposed to them. Instead, discuss with them why and how to say no. It can be helpful to give them a way out under pressure. Sometimes, a fib can give kids a way to resist peer pressure when just saying no feels too hard. For example, they might say, “My parents are crazy, and they run drug tests on us.” School drug-testing is another reason kids can give if they’re feeling pressure - many schools do, in fact, have random drug-tests. Even, “I can’t smoke, I get asthma,” can be useful.
Be clear on repercussionsAlthough it’s good to encourage questions and open communication, never back down on the fact that taking drugs is against the rules of your home. Establish clear boundaries and punishments for transgressions. Stick to those. Also, if your child has friends who are known to take drugs or abuse alcohol, limit their contact with your child. If you are uncomfortable with your child’s social circle or activities, you have a right to act. Don’t let concerns about not being the cool parent or your child’s indignation hold you back.
Say yes to a drug-free lifeIt can be tough talking to your child about drugs.You and they might feel awkward or uncomfortable. Don’t let this get in the way of your delivering your whole message or of revisiting it from time to time. This is your child’s only childhood and it’s up to you to make sure that it isn’t ruined by substance abuse or addiction, and the lifelong repercussions of making a few bad decisions.