Parenting is full of challenges that test the patience and wisdom of anyone raising children. Teaching about drugs and alcohol is one of those situations in which even the most confident parents may feel out of their depth. Some may feel that substance use education is best left to professional educators. After all, most children and teenagers are more likely to hear people talking about drugs and alcohol—or meet pressure to use drugs and alcohol—at school than at home. Others may believe that public figures and the media have a responsibility to spread accurate information about drug and alcohol abuse. Television, film and music play a big role in shaping public impressions of drinking and drug use, especially among children and teens who have little or no personal experience with substance use. But ultimately, there are excellent reasons to make sure your child’s drug and alcohol education begins and ends with you.
Starting at a Young Age
Drug education resources such as those available through the U.S. Department of Education or KidsHealth.org agree that parents can begin to lay the groundwork for substance abuse discussions when children are very small—well before they are taught about substance abuse in school or exposed to much alcohol or drug use in the media. This doesn’t mean that you are going to sit your preschooler down and lecture about the health risks of cocaine or crystal meth. Instead, you can start talking to them about healthy eating, and about being aware of what they put into their bodies. You can talk to them about using medicine responsibly in the event that you need to give them prescription drugs for a fever or cough. You can also start empowering them to make decisions and think for themselves with simple things like letting them choose which clothes to wear.
Teaching a Consistent Lesson
Parents can also help to ensure a degree of consistency in their children’s substance use education by doing at least some of the teaching themselves. While almost all schools provide alcohol and drug education starting in the elementary grades, the message of D.A.R.E. or other drug and alcohol curriculums may not reflect the values children learn at home. Programs like D.A.R.E.—which is found in schools nationwide—teach children and teens to avoid drugs and alcohol altogether. However, many children may see their parents enjoying moderate drinking on a regular basis, or know that their parents smoked tobacco or marijuana in high school or college. Talking with your children about substance use can help ease any confusion they might have about conflicting messages. To add to these conflicting messages, film, television and music are also sources for contradictory impressions of drug and alcohol use. However nice it would be if the highly influential media provided a consistent educational message about avoiding substance abuse, it’s not going to happen any time soon. For every PSA or celebrity activist who speaks out against drug use, drunk driving and other substance-related topics, there are glamorous icons smoking cigarettes or singing songs about drugs or alcohol. Some parents may decide they want to teach about responsible substance use rather than abstinence. They may feel that this approach is more realistic and will provide their child with better coping skills when facing real-world pressures and situations. Others may decide to reinforce the abstinence message taught in most schools. Either way, the message is more effective if it is consistent with the overall parenting style and expectations with which young people have been raised.
Being Available to Your Children
However comprehensive a school’s drug and alcohol education, the police officers or teachers who provide those lessons may not be available when your child has questions. There may not be a forum for students to seek clarification or share their experiences if they would prefer not to do so in a public setting. Parents should be there to provide a ready ear whenever questions or concerns arise. If parents do not ever discuss drugs and alcohol with their kids, young people may feel that the topic is taboo and will not be willing to raise the subject themselves. Not feeling like they can discuss this openly can discourage them from seeking help if they need it, like when they have been drinking and should not get behind the wheel, or when the friend who gave them a ride is under the influence.