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Making Sure Kids Get the Message

Communication Is Key

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

March 26, 2001 -- Lois Thomson-Bowersock taught her two sons plenty about drug and alcohol abuse. After all, as a recovering alcoholic, she knew what she was talking about.

"By the time either one of my kids was 12, I'm sure they could give a presentation on alcohol and drugs," says Thomson-Bowersock, who lives outside Houston.

She gave them the facts. She taught them about peer pressure. She assured her children that they could talk to her about anything. Still, when her younger son was 14, Thomson-Bowersock discovered he had an addiction.

"There was nothing that compared to being a parent of a kid who was in trouble with drugs," says Thomson-Bowersock, who became an alcohol and drug counselor after helping her son recover. "It was just so painful."

With more than 40% of high school seniors using illicit drugs in the last year, and one in three sophomores doing the same, drug use continues at a steady pace among adolescents, the CDC reports. Youths say that parental influence and participation in sports are two of the most important factors in their decision to reject drugs, according to a nationwide antidrug campaign. But is telling your kids you love them and shuttling them off to soccer practice enough?

Not quite, says Alyse Booth, spokesperson for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Parents and children need to have an ongoing discussion about the issue. "Just talking to your kids once or twice really isn't the answer," Booth tells WebMD. "It's important to have a consistent message, and to keep up the conversation."

Parents often underestimate the presence of drugs in their children's lives, and may never bring it up. About 36% of teens say their parents have never talked to them about drugs, according to a recent CASA survey.

"Kids are surrounded by drugs, and it's important that parents acknowledge that they are aware of this," Booth says. "Parents influence their kids about whether they use or don't use more than everyone else."

But what if you used drugs in your past? Are you being hypocritical in demanding that your children abstain from the same behavior? No, says Judith S. Gordon, PhD, associate research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute. But be honest.

"A lot of parents who smoke, for example, are afraid to discuss the issue with their kids," says Gordon, who is researching adolescent tobacco use. "You need to get up there and say, 'I smoke. I wish I didn't. These are the problems I'm having. I'm addicted and can't stop. I really wish you never have to go through what I went through.'"

Outlining a family policy on drug and alcohol use, detailing for children what is forbidden and what the consequences of breaking the contract will be, is a good place to start. Gordon recommends setting up a reward system to encourage your children from avoiding such behaviors. "The idea of early on discussing your goals, your expectations, your hopes for your child and involving your child in a dialogue with you is important across the board," she says.

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