Making Sure Kids Get the Message

Communication Is Key

Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD
From the WebMD Archives

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.

And the earlier the better: Once your child hits the teenage years, peer influence often takes on greater meaning than parental input. "Eight to 12 is when kids are starting to think about these issues, and when their parents have more influence on them," says Kristie Wang, communications director at Children Now, a national child advocacy organization based in California. "If those communication channels are not already in place, it will become really awkward to bring it up."

As part of its Talking with Kids about Tough Issues campaign, Children Now encourages parents to listen, build self-esteem, encourage choice, be a good example, and repeat the message. Another way to teach your children to handle difficult choices is through role-playing, Wang says: "It's a good way for parents to really present to their kids exactly how they can turn down drugs and really show the kids exactly how they can communicate in those situations."

Parents also should work with their communities to provide adult-supervised activities like skateboarding contests to lure children to positive environments, Gordon says. Activities involving music, family, sports, friends, and dancing keep children busy and away from drugs, according to children responding to the government's antidrug campaign.

"Most of the people you see drinking and smoking pot are the people who don't have anything else to do," says Shola Olorunnipa, a 17-year-old from Tallahassee who uses performing arts to encourage his peers to remain drug free. "Find something that you like, that you are involved in -- like for me it's singing or dancing -- and make that what occupies your time."

Even something as simple as having dinner with your family five or more times a week can reduce the likelihood of your children trying drugs, Booth says. It shows that you have interest in their lives, and also is a good time to talk about their experiences.

"The important thing is for parents to open up those lines of communication," Wang says. "Kids really do listen."

Kimberly Sanchez is a St. Louis freelancer who has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Dallas Morning News. She is a frequent contributor to WebMD.