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It's Never Too Soon to Discuss Drugs and Making Good Decisions with Your Kids

By Pat Brannin, Certified Prevention Consultant
Arkansas Department of Human Services Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention

It only takes a moment to help children stay drug-free and healthy. Setting clear expectations and repeating them consistently ensures that youth know your standards. That understanding has proven to help them make good decisions.

Healthy habits, including decision-making and self-esteem, develop during the preschool years. Now is the time to celebrate your child's decision-making skills to help him learn problem-solving skills that lower frustration levels. Help your child understand the difference between make-believe and real life by discussing TV programs. Let your child know your likes and dislikes and how violence or bad decisions hurt real people. There is never a bad time to give your child a self-esteem boost by letting him know how proud you are when he helps you.

In the early elementary years (grades K-3), children are exploring their individuality but are still eager to please. Help your child learn to express his feelings in a variety of ways. Set clear rules and behave the way you want your child to behave. Focus on long-term solutions to problems that he is experiencing. Give your child the power to escape from situations that make him feel bad, whether it is an actual place or friendships that are uncomfortable. It is never too early to start talking about drugs and alcohol. According to the Arkansas Prevention Needs Assessment, the average age of first alcoholic drink is 10 years old, so talk to your child before the issue arises. Keep the discussions factual and based in the present. Now is a good time to help him understand the messages in the media by asking him how he feels about what he heard.

In grades 4-6, your child may start to challenge your advice, but he hears it, and it stays with him. Make sure your child knows the rules and understands that clear consequences will be enforced. Act out scenes with your child where people offer drugs and alcohol. This helps build refusal skills. Give your child the power to make decisions that go against his peers. It can be as simple as encouraging him to pick out clothing he likes rather than what his crowd likes. Continue to help him separate fantasy from reality by watching TV and movies with him. Reinforce what makes your child special. Puberty can upend a child's self-esteem. Offset those feelings with positive comments about who he is as an individual and not just what he does. Keep drug and alcohol messages based in fact and not fear. Youth this age are not concerned about future problems from experimenting with drugs. However, youth are concerned about the here and now impacts like appearance and performance in afterschool activities.

Transition from elementary to middle school is difficult for many kids. New school, new rules, new teacher expectations and new peers are just a part of what confronts them. All of this, plus changes to his body and emotions, make for a turbulent time. Take the time to make it very clear that alcohol, tobacco and drug use are not good decisions. Make sure he truly understands the consequences. Get to know your child's new friends and their parents to ensure that everyone has the same standards. Monitor computers and phones to be sure that you know your child's online friends and activities, including text messages. Encourage open dialogue about your child's experiences. Give him the chance to express concerns and discuss problems in a calm and reasonable manner.

In grades 7-9, it is highly possible that your child has been offered alcohol, tobacco or other drugs. To help him live a healthy and drug-free life, continue to let him know all the things that are wonderful about him as an individual and not just his accomplishments. Take the time to show interest in and discuss his daily ups and downs. Do not leave anti-drug education up to the school. Use what he learns at school as a starting point for the discussion at home. Make sure your child knows the rules and consequences at home and away. Especially discuss the effect that alcohol, tobacco and drugs have on his appearance physically and socially because these are important at this age.

By grades 10-12, teens are a savvy bunch when it comes to substance use. Your child has probably seen his friends use and the consequences or lack thereof. Do not speak about drug and alcohol use in general terms. He needs detailed and reality-driven messages. Emphasize what drug use can do to his future - from getting into his college of choice to getting the job he wants. Encourage him to volunteer somewhere he can see the impact of drugs on the community such as homeless shelters and victim service centers. Use news reports as discussion openers. If the story is about an alcohol-related car crash, discuss the victims left in the wake, including the family and friends of the passengers. Challenge him to be a peer leader among his friends. The statistics show that the majority of youth do not use drugs and alcohol, but the few who do get highlighted. That gives youth the impression that they have to use drugs to fit in or be part of the in-crowd. Compliment teens for their positive choices. It only takes a moment to say how proud you are because your child is not using!

The suggestions above are taken from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America's Parent Toolkit at drugfree.org.

Do you know which drugs your teenager is most likely to abuse? Here's a hint: There's probably an easy supply in your home already.

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