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Cigarettes, Alcohol, and Drugs

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Open communication between parents and children is especially important when kids face the temptation to experiment with cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. While many parents would prefer avoiding addressing these frightening topics, that is simply not a smart way to proceed. Children are today being confronted with pressure to use these substances at earlier and earlier ages. Parents and concerned adults in children's lives need to talk to children about drugs and alcohol and tobacco as early as possible, before their peers pass on inaccurate or incomplete information.

teen drinkingDifferent parents have different ideas about how to go about educating children about drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. One popular approach, exemplified by the "Just Say No" USA anti-drug campaign from the 1980s, is to tell children that these things are simply evil and taboo, perhaps even sinful, and that they must not ever engage these things or risk becoming tainted or destroyed. There is a lot of merit to this easy-to-understand approach, but also a real danger of over-simplification. In presenting such a strongly polarized, black and white view of substances, parents are essentially asking children to conform and shut off their intellect and curiosity. More anxious and conforming children will be happy to comply with such a message, but less anxious children may see it as an insult and a challenge to rebel against rather than as wise guidance. These latter children need to know why use of substances is a bad idea before they will become motivated to avoid them.

In order that all children can benefit from warning about the dangers associated with drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, we recommend a more nuanced two-part message be delivered to children in accordance with their unique needs. The first part of the message is essentially "just say no". The second part of the message acknowledges that these substances are not purely evil and that adults have complicated relationships with them, and then goes on to weigh out the pros and cons associated with these different substances, demonstrating that the cons generally outweigh the pros. Some children will need more of the first message and less of the second, while other children will need the reverse. Parents will have to feel their way towards understanding what children need to hear. Importantly, both messages must be delivered with true concern for children's welfare or children will sense that the message is false, coming from a place of dogma rather than love, and be less inclined to listen to it.

Parents are advised to talk with children about these substances in a direct, non-threatening way, and to understand that the conversation will not be a one-time event, but rather something that needs to take place repeatedly. Parents should do what they can to approach the discussion from a calm state of mind. If they seem nervous when talking about these topics their anxiety is likely to rub off on kids.

Seeing instances of tobacco, alcohol, or drug use in the community or on television can give parents a perfect opportunity to ask children what they think about this use, providing an opening from which to start an educational discussion. Adults can talk briefly about how, for instance, tobacco causes cancer and heart disease, bad breath, wrinkles and yellow teeth and hinders physical fitness needed to play sports. In addition, caregivers can discuss how using any of these substances can interfere with learning and academic achievement, brain development (children's brains are still forming!), socializing, and extracurricular activities. Finally, caregivers should stress that all of these substances are illegal, and that children who use them can get into serious trouble.

Parents can practice and role-play different ways that children can say no to substances, and other harmful choices. When peer pressure is light, children can use simple, direct methods of refusal such as saying, "No, thanks," or "Nah, I'm not into that stuff." If peers persist in offering drugs, children can counter with explanations for why they are refusing that peers may accept, such as, "Nah, I want my lungs to stay as healthy as possible. I need to beat you at the sports event next week!" or, "My Mom will take away my cell phone permanently. Sorry!". Parents who learn about friends who continually pressure their children to participate in drugs can call to their children's attention that this is not what a true friend does and encourage them to let that friendship go. With the benefit of role-play practice of how they can respond to peer pressure to use substances, children will become better prepared to resist this pressure and more confident overall.

A final thing parents should communicate to children regarding substances is that they should feel free to call their parents at any time they feel stuck in uncomfortable situation where there is a lot of pressure to use substances (e.g., during a sleep-over). Children should know they can make an excuse and call home and that their parents will come and get them without asking any questions (at least until everyone is safely back at home).