Should I be worried about drugs?

Schools, parents, and the media try to give children a clear message—drugs are bad. Children hear, “Just say no to drugs,” and “Drugs can kill you.” Six- to nine-year-old accept the message without question and declare, “I’ll never take drugs!” “You’ll go to jail.” “It’s against the law.” With few exceptions, they have no internal conflict about drugs, they don’t experiment, and they don’t face peer pressure to try drugs. They’re very aware of what’s right and wrong and they even know that drinking and driving don’t mix. One child, seeing a passing motorist sipping from a beer can, urged his parents to write down the license-plate number and call the police.

It’s easy for a young child to say no to the idea of drug use. What parents need to consider is what will happen when their child gets older and is confronted with peer pressure and opportunities. Parents hope that early warnings will keep their child out of trouble, but unfortunately, that’s not always the case. However, they should do all they can now to help their child reject impulsive experimentation later.

First, they should behave in ways they want their child to adopt. Too many parents say, “Don’t use drugs,” and then condone, use, or abuse alcohol or drugs themselves. They need to set a good example. If they drink frequently, kids will accept that as normal behavior. If they smoke, their children may smoke when they get older. Certainly if parents use drugs, their child will be confused about their warnings. Parents may try to hide alcohol or drug abuse, but he will eventually discover the truth. Then he may not only copy their actions, but feel anger and distrust toward them for deceiving him.

At some point, as you deal with the issue of drug abuse, your child may ask if you’ve ever used drugs. If you haven’t, you can comfortably answer the question, perhaps starting a discussion: “What made you curious?” “What did you think I’d say?”

If you did use drugs in the past, this isn’t the time to give your child the details. Perhaps you can share more when he’s older, but at this point simply give your message that drug use is unacceptable. Telling him anything more will greatly increase the risk that he’ll eventually do as you once did.

Keep the lines of communication open. While your child might be enrolled in an elementary school drug education program, don’t count on that to keep him safe. These programs are often ineffective because they’re aimed at young children who are already convinced that drugs are bad. Programs for pre-adolescents and teens tend to be more successful because they target kids who are actually exposed to drug culture and who are much more cynical about laws and prohibitions.

Your child needs your continuing guidance and support to resist drugs. Answer his questions and talk about the dangers of drug use. Your child will hear about political leaders, celebrities, and sport stars who’ve been arrested for drug possession or who’ve died of overdoses; he may be very upset if he admired one of them. Use these occasions to talk about the reasons for drug use and the alternatives people can choose.

As your child grows, you can help him avoid drugs by staying involved and encouraging him to feel good about his abilities and character. There’s value in a strong ego. A positive self-image gives preteen or teenager strength to resist peer influences and comfortably say no to drugs.

During the early elementary years, you’ll have few actual worries about drug use. But don’t ignore the potential problem. As he reaches the pre-adolescent years, keep talking to your child, reinforcing the anti-drug messages he hears, and helping him become strong enough to resist temptation when he encounters it.

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