Talk to Your Child About Drugs

Just as you inoculate your children against illnesses like measles, you can help "immunize" your children against drug use by giving them the facts before they are presented with the substance.

When kids don't feel comfortable talking to parents, they're likely to seek answers to their questions elsewhere, even if their sources are not reliable. If kids are not properly informed, there's a greater risk that they're going to engage in risky behaviors and experiment with drugs.

What Should I Say to My Child?

Preschool to Age 7

Before you get anxious about talking to your young children, take heart. You've probably already laid the groundwork for a discussion. For instance, when you give a fever medication or an antibiotic to your child, you have the opportunity to discuss the benefits and the appropriate use of those drugs. You are providing a context of how to use drugs in a responsible way. This is also a time when your child is likely to be very attentive to your behavior and any guidance that you provide.

This is also an ideal time to start taking advantage of "teachable moments." If you see a character on a billboard or on TV that is smoking, talk to your child about cigarettes, nicotine addiction, and what smoking does to person's body. This can lead into a discussion about other drugs and how they can potentially cause harm. 

The tone of these discussions should be calm and it's a good idea to present the concept in terms that you know your child can understand. Be specific about the effects of the drugs: how they make a person feel, the risk of overdose, and the other long-term damage drugs can cause. To give your kids the facts, you might have to do a little research.

Ages 8 to 12

As your kids grow older, you can open up conversations about drugs with them by asking them what they think about drugs. If you ask the questions in a non-judgmental, open-ended way, it is likely that you will get a more honest response from your child.

This is also a time when kids are still really willing to talk openly to their parents about touchy subjects. By establishing a dialogue at this age, you will help keep the door open as kids get older and are naturally less inclined to share their thoughts and feelings so openly with you. 

Even if your question doesn't immediately result in a discussion, you've gotten your kids thinking about the issue. If you show your kids that you're willing to discuss the topic openly and hear what they have to say, they might be more willing to come to you for help in the future.

News items, such as steroid use in professional sports, can be springboards for casual conversations about current events. These discussions can provide your children with information about the risks of drugs.

Ages 13 to 17

At this age, your kids are likely to know other kids who use or abuse alcohol or drugs. They are also likely to have friends and peers who drive. It's important to talk about the dangers of driving under the influence on your kids. Talk about the legal issues - jail time and fines for driving under the influence - and the possibility that they or someone else might be killed or seriously injured.

It's a good idea to set up a written or unwritten contract on the conditions of going out or using the car. You can promise to pick your kids up at any time (even 2:00 AM!) without asking questions if they call you when the person who drove has been drinking or using drugs.

The contract can also detail other situations: For example, if you find out someone has been drinking or using drugs in your car while your kids are driving, you may want to suspend driving privileges for 6 months. If you discuss all of this at the beginning, there will be no surprises and they will be clear about your expectations.

Laying Good Groundwork

No parent, child, or family is immune to the effects of drugs. Some of the best kids can end up in trouble, even when they have made an effort to avoid it, and even when they have been given the proper guidance from their parents.

However, certain groups of kids may be more likely to use drugs than others. Kids who have friends who use drugs are likely to try drugs themselves. Kids who may be feeling socially isolated for one reason or another may turn to drugs. So it's important to know your child's friends - and their parents. Be involved in your children's lives. If your child's school runs an anti-drug program, get involved. You might learn something! Pay attention to how your kids are feeling and let them know that you are available and willing to listen in a non-judgmental way. Recognize when your kids are going through difficult times so that you can provide the support they need or seek additional care beyond what you can provide.

A warm, open family environment, where kids are encouraged to talk about their feelings, where their achievements are praised, and where their self-esteem is bolstered will encourage kids to come forward with their questions and concerns. When kids are censored in their own homes, they go elsewhere to find support and answers to their most important questions.

What You Need to Know About Drugs

Drugs are chemicals that change the way a person's body works. You've probably heard that drugs are bad for you, but what does that mean and why are they bad?

Medicines Are Legal Drugs

If you've ever been sick and had to take medicine, you already know about one kind of drugs. Medicines are legal drugs, meaning doctors are allowed to prescribe them for patients, stores can sell them, and people are allowed to buy them. But it's not legal, or safe, for people to use these medicines any way they want or to buy them from people who are selling them illegally. 

Cigarettes and Alcohol

Cigarettes and alcohol are two other kinds of legal drugs. (In the United States, adults 18 and over can buy cigarettes and those 21 and over can buy alcohol.) But smoking and excessive drinking are not healthy for adults and off limits for kids.

Illegal Drugs

When people talk about the "drug problem," they usually mean abusing legal drugs or using illegal drugs, such as marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, LSD, and heroin. (Marijuana is generally an illegal drug, but some states allow doctors to prescribe it to adults for certain illnesses.)

Why Are Illegal Drugs Dangerous?

Illegal drugs aren't good for anyone, but they are particularly bad for a kid or teen whose body is still growing. Illegal drugs can damage the brain, heart, and other important organs. Cocaine, for instance, can cause a heart attack - even in a kid or teen. 

While using drugs, a person is also less able to do well in school, sports, and other activities. It's often harder to think clearly and make good decisions. People can do dumb or dangerous things that could hurt themselves - or other people - when they use drugs.

Why Do People Use Illegal Drugs?

Sometimes kids and teens try drugs to fit in with a group of friends. Or they might be curious or just bored. A person may use illegal drugs for many reasons, but often because they help the person escape from reality for a while. If a person is sad or upset, a drug can - temporarily - make the person feel better or forget about problems. But this escape lasts only until the drug wears off.

Drugs don't solve problems, of course. And using drugs often causes other problems on top of the problems the person had in the first place. A person who uses drugs can become dependent on them, or addicted. This means that the person's body becomes so accustomed to having this drug that he or she can't function well without it. 

Once a person is addicted, it's very hard to stop taking drugs. Stopping can cause withdrawal symptoms, such as vomiting (throwing up), sweating, and tremors (shaking). These sick feelings continue until the person's body gets adjusted to being drug free again. 

Can I Tell If Someone Is Using Drugs?

If someone is using drugs, you might notice changes in how the person looks or acts. Here are some of those signs, but it's important to remember that depression or another problem could be causing these changes. A person using drugs may: 

  • lose interest in school

  • change friends (to hang out with kids who use drugs)

  • become moody, negative, cranky, or worried all the time

  • ask to be left alone a lot

  • have trouble concentrating

  • sleep a lot (maybe even in class)

  • get in fights

  • have red or puffy eyes

  • lose or gain weight

  • cough a lot

  • have a runny nose all of the time

What Can I Do to Help?

If you think someone is using drugs, the best thing to do is to tell an adult that you trust. This could be a parent, other relative, teacher, coach, or school counselor. The person might need professional help to stop using drugs. A grown-up can help the person find the treatment he or she needs to stop using drugs. Another way kids can help kids is by choosing not to try or use drugs. It's a good way for friends to stick together. 

Understanding drugs and why they are dangerous is another good step for a kid to take. Below, we've listed some words that may be new to you.

Words to Know

Addiction (say: uh-dik-shun) - A person has an addiction when he or she becomes dependent on or craves a drug all of the time. 

Depressant (say: dih-preh-sunt) - A depressant is a drug that slows a person down. Doctors prescribe depressants to help people be less angry, anxious, or tense. Depressants relax muscles and make people feel sleepy, less stressed out, or like their head is stuffed.  Some people may use these drugs illegally to slow themselves down and help bring on sleep - especially after using various kinds of stimulants. (See below.)

Hallucinogen (say: huh-loo-sun-uh-jun) - A hallucinogen is a drug, such as LSD, that changes a person's mood and makes him or her see, hear, or think things that aren't really there.

High - A high is the feeling that drug users want to get when they take drugs. There are many types of highs, including a very happy or spacey feeling or a feeling that a person has special powers, such as the ability to fly or to see into the future.

Inhalant (say: in-hay-lunt) - An inhalant, such as glue or gasoline, is sniffed or "huffed" to give the user an immediate rush. Inhalants produce a quick feeling of being drunk - followed by sleepiness, staggering, dizziness, and confusion.

Narcotic (say: nar-kah-tik) - A narcotic dulls the body's senses (leaving a person less aware and alert and feeling carefree) and relieves pain. Narcotics can cause a person to sleep, fall into a stupor, have convulsions, and even slip into a coma. Certain narcotics - such as codeine - are legal if given by doctors to treat pain. Heroin is an illegal narcotic because it is has dangerous side effects and is very addictive.

Stimulant (say: stim-yuh-lunt) - A stimulant speeds up a person's body and brain. Stimulants, such as methamphetamines and cocaine, have the opposite effect of depressants. Usually, stimulants make a person feel high and energized. When the effects of a stimulant wear off, the person will feel tired or sick.