The Talk: Discussing Drugs with Your Kids

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

No parents want to see their children use drugs, yet many parents don’t know what to say to their children about drugs.

Or they assume that the school program suffices or maybe hope that if they yell at their children about drugs, their children won’t try drugs.

All of these strategies are a big gamble.

Physician Gale R. Burstein, who serves as commissioner of health with Erie County Department of Health, believes parents can play an essential role in keeping their kids away from drugs.

“It’s very important that parents start talking with their kids about all risky behaviors that can lead to poor health outcomes at an early age,” Burstein said.

She advises open and honest conversation that comes from a viewpoint of love and concern — not yelling, blaming, accusing or threatening, since scaring children curtails learning about the topic.

Burstein said that parents shouldn’t focus on “The Talk” about drugs — a long lecture performed one time at a certain age — but they should instead organically discuss drugs in short, age-appropriate sessions throughout childhood.

“There are messages that are age appropriate from a young age,” she said. “They should understand you do not want them to misuse prescriptions or alcohol or illicit drugs.”

Whether it’s a news story, billboard or movie, parents can ask their children what they think about what they see.

By elementary school, children could learn about the differences between medicine and illicit drugs and why prescriptions should be taken only as prescribed and by who’s on the prescription.

In addition to drug talks, children also need to learn problem solving for lasting solutions so they won’t feel the need to turn to drugs to solve problems or deal with stress.

“Kids who are well connected to their parents and know their parents don’t want them to use drugs have a much lower risk of using drugs,” Burstein said. “Repeat those messages. They can change as the child ages.”

Around the pre-teen years, young people need to feel they can talk with their parents about anything without judgment or a harsh response. They need to feel that their parents will simply listen without rushing in to fix or teach all the time.

“It’s good that you help your child develop a plan if they’re offered things by their friends,” Burstein said. “Help them plan to say no or have an exit plan. They can text you any time to come get them and they won’t be in trouble.”

Also at the pre-teen age, it’s time to establish rules with consequences, long before something happens.

Sourav Sengupta, Ph.D. at University at Buffalo’s department of psychiatry, said that by the teen years, it’s time to have more frank discussions about the consequences of drug use.

“The language there is important. ‘Sometimes people make choices to put things into their bodies to make them feel a different way. This isn’t always a good idea. What have you heard about this?’” he suggested as an idea of what to say.

Substance abuse education at school can provide a springboard to conversation and to answer any questions they have.

Sengupta also stressed the importance of a solid relationship with teens so parents can seek any help they may need.

“Stay in touch with the teen,” he said. “Teens aren’t particularly open to ‘How was your day?’ That process is still required to keep the ground fertile for when you need to talk.”

Teens who experiment with drugs often have different reasons for their behavior than their parents may think. Sengupta said it could include, “‘It’s so stressful at school. I have three hours of homework at night after school. When I smoke weed, I can calm myself down.’ Or, ‘All the girls at school make fun of me for what I look like so I smoke some in the morning so I can get to school.’ Sometimes, it’s ‘We went over to Jimmy’s house and I puffed and I passed.’ It is a social norm and there’s some peer pressure. Try to address the underlying issue.”

For this reason, it’s also important to lead by example. If you rush for a glass of wine every evening after work, it signals teens that using a mood-altering substance can help them relax, too.

If you have used drugs in the past, use your experience to indicate the negative effects of using drugs.

“You can try to have a conversation about, ‘You’re right, I did those things and I experienced challenges, but I don’t want to you to have to go through that,’” Sengupta said.

If you suffered no lasting effects, express how lucky you were and that others aren’t so fortunate.

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