Talking to your kids about drugs

The right time to start talking to your kids about drugs is...now. Here's an age-by-age guide to get the conversation started

In the movie Almost Famous, an early 1970s suburban mom played by Frances McDormand drops her teenage son off at a rock concert. As he walks away from the car, the mother, unable to contain her uneasiness, yells out, “Don’t take drugs” much to the amusement of the hippies streaming into the show.

McDormand’s character gives voice to a fear that has perched unspoken on the tongues of many parents, one that I started thinking about when my first child, Riley, was little. Were there ways we could equip him to navigate the perils of drugs without driving him underground?

The short answer is yes. And the sooner you start, the better. Here’s a look at some ways to do just that.
Preschoolers (0–5)
Laying the foundation

Heather Clark, a research and policy analyst with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, says that with young children, the key is to build a sense of belonging and connectedness in the family. “We focus on the parent-child relationship, rather than teaching young children about the dangers of drugs,” she says. That’s not to say good parenting “inoculates” against substance abuse. But kids who have strong relationships with their parents do tend to get into less trouble with drugs and alcohol. And while that’s true for all age groups, the foundation is built in the preschool years.

Still, there is one drug lesson you can start teaching your preschooler: Drugs can be either good or bad for you, depending on how they are used. Legal, prescription and over-the-counter drugs come with risks, and kids need to understand that while medicine can help them when they’re sick, it can also hurt them if taken in the wrong amount or at the wrong time. Simple steps, such as locking medications in an out-of-reach cabinet and telling children never to take medicine on their own, send the message early on that drugs are not to be trifled with. It doesn’t have to be a “let’s sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk” thing; short conversations, in the context of someone in the family taking a medication appropriately, can be very effective.

School-agers (6–11)
Building blocks

Kids this age still don’t need a lot of detail about street drugs (good relationships and communication with parents are still the biggest protective factors), but you can start talking to them about socially sanctioned drugs like tobacco and alcohol.

“The first drug-related conversations we had with our kids were about cigarettes, probably when Colin, our youngest, was seven,” says John Doyle, a Brampton, Ont., father of two boys, 11 and 13. “Over the last few years, I’ve told them that athletes don’t smoke because it wrecks their bodies, and that tobacco companies are trying to get kids their age hooked on cigarettes.”

Smoking is a good entry point to the subject of substance abuse. It’s a less loaded topic, and kids who take up smoking are statistically much more likely to drink, smoke pot or take other illegal drugs. Some observers are even starting to call tobacco the “gateway” drug to harder substances, a status conferred on marijuana 30 years ago. So discouraging your kids from smoking is actually a first-line drug prevention strategy. And it’s much easier to sell the negatives of cigarettes to an eight-year-old than to a 14-year-old.

Pre- and young teens (12–14)
Getting a jump-start

The two key ideas with this age are start talking about drugs before your kids try them, and communicate your concerns while they’re still listening to you. However, a simple “Don’t take drugs” is not sufficient, says Hélène Letellier, an assistant researcher with the Addiction Prevention Centre in Montreal. “Give them clear and coherent information about the risks involved,” she says. “Explain that when someone is drunk or high, they lose judgment, can’t control themselves and can get into all sorts of bad situations.” Kids need to hear solid arguments about the risks of drug use, so that those messages will be in their heads when they have the opportunity — or feel pressure — to try pot or ecstasy.

Linda Laroque,* a mother of three from Toronto, has brought up the subject of drugs with her eldest daughter, 12-year-old Caylie, albeit with some discomfort. “I wouldn’t ever have talked to my parents about drugs, so I find it hard to know how to get the conversation going,” says Laroque. She asked if Caylie had ever seen anybody using drugs, to which Caylie responded, “That’s crazy.” Laroque then asked if Caylie had any questions. That got a quick no.

If your kid is similarly less than enthused about opening up on the subject of drugs, don’t worry. Regardless of what you say or how she reacts, the main thing is to bring it up before she has something to hide. “It’s important to broach the topic in a non-accusatory way,” says Clark. One strategy she suggests is referring to stories in the media. “You might say something like ‘I read in the newspaper that police were bringing drug-sniffing dogs into one of the local high schools,’ and use that as a starting point.”

Doyle and his partner, Sandy, have used real-life experiences as starting points. “When we visit my sister, we pass through a part of Toronto where you sometimes see drug addicts on the street,” he says. “The boys have asked things like ‘What’s wrong with that guy?’ Or ‘Why is she acting so strange?’ We’ve explained that they might be drug addicts and can’t really help the way they’re acting because they’re high. We talk about how strong the addictive urge is and that it’s a really good thing to avoid.”

What isn’t helpful to preteens is talk that glamorizes drugs or makes them sound like fun. When kids ask questions like “Why do people take drugs?” it’s important to be honest, which may include explaining that people sometimes like the way drugs make them feel. But Letellier suggests always emphasizing the dangers and the fact that some things may feel good in the short term, but have very negative long-term consequences.

*Names changed by request.

Young teens (13–14)
Staying in touch

We all know that teens question our beliefs and rules, and are increasingly influenced by their friends. But remember: Less influence does not equal no influence. Give your child the message that you know about drugs, and that you’re not too freaked out to talk about them. This can help you deal with any questions she may have, and make the conversation a little easier if you discover that she’s already tried pot or booze. Kids take in more than we think, says Clark, and they still need to hear what we have to say. “We don’t want children to be relying for information on the person who offers them a joint.”

Like Letellier, Clark suggests stressing the dangers. “Point out that when kids are high or drunk, they’re more likely to get into a car they shouldn’t get into, and some kids end up in the hospital,” she says. Other dangers to point out include the risks of being assaulted, committing a stupid crime while under the influence or even taking a pill laced with extra drugs. Addiction scare stories rarely work because no teen believes he will get hooked. The Canadian Addiction Survey shows that, among youth who had not taken drugs, only five percent cited possible addiction as one of their reasons for abstaining. The two most common reasons were potential health risks and a lack of interest in drugs.

So how do you get your kids to not be interested in drugs? There’s no magic answer but, according to Clark, research shows that keeping busy and hanging out with kids who don’t do drugs can lessen a teen’s interest. And while you can’t control who or what your kids like, you can throw your support behind healthy activities that absorb their attention and energy, and make a point of getting to know their friends. And you’ll want to be alert to any signs of possible drug use, such as a sudden change in mood or behaviour — staying out late, say, or not keeping in touch.

Keeping kids off drugs is an ongoing process. So keep talking — about drugs, about his feelings and about other issues in his life. “One or two conversations are not enough,” says Letellier. “You don’t need to be an expert on drugs or provide highly detailed information. The most important things parents can communicate are their values.”

*Names changed by request.

When do they start?

According to the 2004 Canadian Addiction Survey, youthful respondents reported the first opportunity they had to try marijuana was at age 14.6, on average. The mean age of reported first use is 15.6. Ditto for alcohol. In the 2007 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, 21 percent of respondents in grade nine said they had used marijuana in the past year, and 19 percent had gotten drunk in the past month. Among grade-12 students, 45 percent had used marijuana in the past year, and 48 percent said they’d been drunk in the past month.

Learn more

Drugs: Know the Facts, Cut Your Risks This publication from Quebec’s Addiction Prevention Centre is a good place for parents to get information on specific drugs, drug use statistics and the law. To order online: cqld.ca.

An Early Start: Drug Education Begins at Home The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has web pages for parents. Go to camh.net, click on Alcohol and Other Drugs, and search under Parenting.

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