By Caitlin Armijo and Shawn S. Sidhu

How To Talk to Your Kids About Drugs

Tips for Having That Difficult Conversation

Alcohol, cannabis and tobacco are the most commonly used drugs by teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By 12th grade, approximately two-thirds of students will have tried alcohol. About half of those in grades 9-12 will use cannabis, while four in 10 will have tried cigarettes. Close to two in 10 high school seniors report abusing a prescription medicine.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that medical providers screen for drug use in children starting at 9 years of age. Despite this, physicians, parents and mentors often struggle with having critical conversations about drug use with children and teens. Some may even delay starting these conversations or not have them at all.

Here are some tips that will help you talk to your child about drugs:

  • Research. Reading articles like this one is a great way to prepare for this talk! Remember, you don't have to be an expert to talk to your kids about drugs. It might be useful to look up some recent information so you are well informed, and this could be especially important if you are concerned about a particular drug. You could also ask your doctor for some pointers.
  • Start talking. This is probably the single most important point. More often than not, a child or teen will not initiate the conversation on drug use. The adult should introduce the topic of drug use and create an environment in which the child or teen feels safe. Many young people use drugs to self-medicate feelings of sadness, worry or stress. Ask your child how they are doing emotionally.
  • Listen. Allow the child/teen to express his or her views on drug use and to share experiences and beliefs. Voice concern, but use supportive and non-confrontational terms ("I'm worried about you because I care about you"). Allow the child/teen to tell his or her personal story about drug use. It's natural for a parent to have strong reactions if a child does admit to drug use, but you will likely learn mor if you adopt a non-judgmental and open-minded stance.
  • Be available. The first conversation on drug use should never be the last. By creating a supportive and comfortable environment, future conversations may be more in-depth and feel more natural. Try to have these conversations during everyday interactions so that the child/teen will feel comfortable participating.
  • Media. Be mindful of the TV shows and movies your kids and teens are watching, as many tend to glorify drug use. Bring this up as a talking point in your conversations. Also, remember that many kids and teens use social media on a daily basis and will often see posts by friends, peers and celebrities who use drugs. Several research studies have found that teens who use social media are more likely to use tobacco, alcohol and cannabis than those who don't. Encourage your child or teen to talk about his or her experiences with drug use on social media.
  • Be aware of change. Children and teens change constantly as new experiences arise. Do not assume their views on drugs will stay the same in the future. Changes in schools, friends or other settings will often trigger a child or teen to reassess his or her views on drugs.
  • Be curious. The conversation should continue, even if the child or teen insists that he or she is not interested in using drugs. I'm glad to hear that you're not using. I'm curious to know why you've chosen to avoid drugs? When your friends are using drugs or getting high, how do you feel? What drugs do you consider dangerous? What do think of when you hear the term drug abuse? In the future, as you grow older, how do you think things will change?
  • Support. If you need help in talking to a child/teen, reach out for help. Physicians and therapists are great resources and will be able to offer further information or resources on this difficult topic.

If a child or teen admits to using drugs, or if there is concern about his or her safety, further efforts will need to be made. There are many treatment options for teen drug use.

If it appears that your child is using drugs to self-medicate feelings of sadness, worrying or stress, consider consulting mental health and/or behavioral health providers.

For low-level drug use that is not causing a safety risk, consider an appointment with a drug counselor or doctor. When teen drug use starts to become dangerous, you might need more frequent appointments, medications to help manage the drug use, drug rehab, residential treatment - or in some cases even calling 911 or going to the nearest emergency room to ensure safety.

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