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I want to talk about drugs and alcohol with my kids. Will they pay attention? Add to ...

The question: What’s the best way to talk to my teens about smoking, alcohol and other drugs? What are the dos and don’ts in such a discussion?

The answer: Parents play an incredibly important role in shaping their teens’ opinions about drugs and alcohol. Although it may appear that your children are not paying attention to you, teens consistently rate their parents as one of their most important sources of information on these topics.

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My advice is to occasionally discuss your views on smoking, drugs, and alcohol starting when your children are young. The nature of these talks will vary depending on the age of your child, but it will establish the pattern that talking about smoking and drugs is a normal, usual occurrence in your family and leaves the door open for your child or teen to raise the subject at any time. This tends to be easier than saving it all up for “the talk,” which can be uncomfortable for both parent and child. As such, there is no perfect age for this discussion, in fact any age is the right age to start having these talks. Here are some things to consider:

  • Smoking: I have never been convinced that teens are particularly moved by the health risks associated with smoking, such as addiction, cancer, and emphysema. That being said, it is almost impossible for these topics not to come up and are probably worth mentioning anyway. If there are family members or close friends who have suffered from smoking related illnesses, talking about their health struggles may bring the subject closer to home. Adolescents may be more impressed by the immediate complications of smoking, such as stained teeth, bad breath, and decreased athletic performance. Most teens, particularly boys, need to be reminded that chewing tobacco carries the same risks as smoking.
  • Alcohol: Because it is socially accepted and widely available, alcohol is one of most dangerous drugs for teenagers. Alcohol impairs judgment, and promotes risky, impulsive behaviours in an age group where common sense and clear thinking are scarce at the best of times. Your teen will already be familiar with your drinking habits, so be open and honest about your opinions. Key messages can include the necessity of waiting until legal age to start drinking, the importance of drinking in moderation, and most importantly never, ever, ever attempt to drive, or get into a car when alcohol has been consumed. Adolescents who are out at night with friends who are driving should be reassured that they can call home at any hour, no questions asked, if they need a ride home.
  • Drugs: Drug use in teens is increasingly common, with marijuana use particularly widespread. Like smoking and alcohol, being open, honest, and sharing your concerns about impaired judgment, risks with driving, and concerns about addiction can be helpful.

A great way to break the ice is to ask your teen if they know of anyone at their school, or in their circle of friends who drinks, smokes, or uses drugs. This takes the heat off your child, while opening up the topic for discussion. Asking your child what he or she thinks about their peers who are using these substances can be very insightful. As always, actions speak louder than words so being a good role model is probably the most important thing that any parent can do for their kids.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He’s a staunch advocate for children’s health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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