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Losing a child to addiction is every parent’s worst nightmare, and part of what makes it so terrifying is that it often feels out of your control. You can’t be with your child every second of every day to ensure he or she is making the right decisions, spending time with positive influences, and resisting temptation to experiment with drugs or alcohol. However, there are many ways to keep your child away from the dangers of addiction — and they probably aren’t as complex as you’d think!
This guide outlines 20 techniques you can use with your child to help him or her stay on the right track toward his goals and away from drugs and alcohol. Discuss how you’ll implement them with your partner to ensure a clear, consistent message. Remember: when it comes to addiction prevention, your child needs a parent, not a friend — and this guide can help you find the balance between a strong hand and a supportive shoulder.
1. Start the conversation early
Some parents think that there’s not much point in talking to their children about addiction until they’re teenagers, but research has shown youth addiction can start as young as age 9. The truth is it’s never too early to stress the dangers of drugs and alcohol. A good first step is warning them about taking medication from anyone other than you from about the age of 5. It’s important to use a stern, serious tone so they know you mean business. Tell them that taking any kind of pill or medication from a friend, classmate, or stranger is not only potentially illegal, it could also be life-threatening. Just be sure to clarify any special exceptions: if your child has medication available in his or her school office, for example, make sure they know it should only be given to them by administration.
2. Keep yourself constantly educated
Because there is still so much to learn about addiction and studies are constantly ongoing, it’s important that you stay on top of what’s current. Make it a regular habit to do your research and have your partner do the same. It can help you identify warning signs of drug abuse in your child, be aware of slang terms you should listen for, and learn about any new or popular drugs to be aware of in your area. Having the facts will also help you better educate your child, as well as keep you credible anytime you discuss the subject.
3. Don’t assume ‘it could never happen’ to your child
Addiction doesn’t discriminate. Drug and alcohol abuse occurs across every platform, from inner cities to rural countrysides to upper-class suburbs. There are certainly risk factors that come into play, but even if your child appears to be in the clear on paper, the danger never goes away completely. Peer pressure is powerful, and for some, just one “taste” of the right drug is enough to start a downward spiral. Stay vigilant — it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
4. Build your child’s self-esteem
High self-esteem is important to the healthy development of children in general, but it’s also a crucial part of addiction prevention. A child who is confident in his or herself is less likely to feel the need to “impress” others with drug use or to give in to peer pressure to experiment. Let your child know you’re proud of them each and every day. Celebrate their positive actions and achievements — like playing a great game in little league, getting a good test score, or being a devoted member of their scout troupe — and help them see past their shortcomings. Remind them that not only is it OK to make mistakes and fall short sometimes, but it’s normal. Don’t be afraid to share some of your own failures or insecurities, either; if kids feel like they’re in the shadow of a “perfect” parent, it can make the pressure to succeed even greater, so let them know that you face your own share of obstacles and truly do understand.
5. Be involved in their activities
Don’t just let them participate in extracurriculars: get involved! Even if you can’t have a completely hands-on role, make it to every game, recital, and competition you can. Between you and your partner, make sure one of you is always there cheering them on. Your child needs to truly see you supporting them, plus it’s an opportunity to be aware of the groups and people they spend time with. Get to know the other parents, as well as the coaches and team captains. If your involvement is limited to picking up and dropping off, you lose the opportunity to see an important part of their world. It can also send the message to your child that you’re not completely interested in what they do, which could cause him or her to act out in an attempt to get your attention.
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6. Set clear rules and boundaries…
Subtlety is not the way to go when it comes to setting the rules about drugs and alcohol use with your child. Spell it out: it is never OK in any situation. It’s not acceptable at home, school, a friend’s house, a party, a family member’s home, or anywhere else. Never blur the lines of what’s allowed, either — you might think it’s harmless to let your teen have just one beer during a special family event, but that can open a dangerous door. If you condone it even once, what’s to stop them from sneaking a cold one out of the fridge on a boring Friday night?
If you co-parent with someone who doesn’t live in your home, be sure they set the same expectations as you. Consistency is crucial, and sending the message that drugs and alcohol are dangerous and against the rules is a joint effort.
7. …and enforce them without hesitation
Breaking the rules about drugs and alcohol isn’t the time for leniency. Your child needs to know you mean business. Whether you catch them drinking at a party or with a bag of marijuana, punishment should be swift and appropriate to the offense. Be sure to express your disappointment in your child’s decision to disobey you, but remind them that no matter what mistakes they make, you will always love them. Let them know that your rules and punishments aren’t meant to be cruel — they’re meant to keep your child safe.
8. Make addiction an ongoing conversation
Your child isn’t going to face temptation to experiment with drugs and alcohol only once or twice, nor should the conversation only happen a couple of times. Look for opportunities to discuss addiction and making positive choices, especially as it comes up in pop culture like television shows, movies, and music. Don’t just lecture — make it a conversation with equal contributions.
Ask your child how he or she feels about what they saw or heard. What do they think leads people to abuse drugs? Don’t forget to point out that succumbing to an addiction doesn’t automatically make someone a bad person. The point isn’t to vilify drug abusers, but to show your children how destructive a life of addiction can truly be.
9. Know your child’s risk level
Genetics are an important part of your child’s risk for addiction, so look into your own family history as well as your partner’s. If you discover that there’s been a significant amount of past drug abuse among your kin, communicate the significance of it to your child. Discuss how it increases their risk to become addicted and the importance of being that much more wary when it comes to experimenting.
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10. Pay close attention
Especially when your child gets to his or her teen years, identifying risky behavior can get tricky. Teenagers go through a whirlwind of emotions and hormonal changes, and that can make it difficult to decipher what’s normal and what’s a warning sign. How is their mood? Is it extremely unpredictable and regularly fluctuating? Keep in mind that moodiness is somewhat expected amongst teens and isn’t always a direct sign of drug abuse, but it could point to an underlying mental health issue like depression that could increase his or her risk for addiction even further.
Pay attention to whom your child is spending time with. Has his or her circle of friends shifted? If so, was there some sort of reasonable explanation for it? Have you noticed behavioral and mood changes since then? Have you met any of the parents of their new friends, and do they seem to be actively engaged in their child’s life? The crowd your child chooses to spend time with away from home can have a major impact on their behavior and choices — both positive and negative — so it’s important to know who their friends are and the kinds of values their family holds.
Also take note of any changes in academics or activities your child is involved in. Have his or her grades been slowly slipping? Have they asked to skip practice when they’re normally eager to attend? Do they show little interest in an upcoming extracurricular event? Again, these aren’t always telltale signs of drug abuse, but there could be something bigger going on you should be in tune with.
11. Maintain open communication
Your child should see you as someone they can always come to no matter the issue. Share your day with him or her and ask them open-ended questions about theirs, especially if something seems to be wrong. Make sure they know that even if they aren’t ready to talk now, your door is always open. If they do come to you, be mindful of your reactions. Hear them out, and listen to their concerns. Don’t minimize an issue that has them stressed, but help them see the light at the end of the tunnel. If they confide about an instance of drug- or alcohol-related peer pressure, don’t leap to conclusions or make accusations. There’s a good chance they made the right decision and are simply struggling with the repercussions — perhaps they turned down an invitation to drink, for instance, and are now facing social exclusion — so don’t judge before you’ve heard the entire story. You want them to feel safe confiding in you instead of worrying you’ll make assumptions; otherwise, they may go to someone less responsible than you next time and get poor advice.
12. Make family dinner a priority
Research has shown that children who have regular family dinners are more likely to have strong, positive relationships with their parents and thus are less likely to use drugs and alcohol. If your work schedule prevents you from making it home for dinner quite often, consider asking your employer to let your child stop in during your break so you can share a meal together or see if you can arrange a schedule that allows you a few nights at home. Talk to your partner about trading off nights so they can be there when you’re not. If dinner simply isn’t manageable, consider focusing on a daily family breakfast instead. It’s important for your child to see that you make a genuine effort to be a part of his or her routine and a constant presence in their life. This opens the door for better communication between you, a stronger bond, and a happier home life — all of which can decrease your child’s risk for dabbling in drugs and alcohol.
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13. Set the example
Your kids learn positive behavior largely by watching adults, so make sure you constantly set a positive example. Drink in moderation, and ask that your guests do the same while your children are around. Be mindful of how you behave and speak while you’re drinking, even if you don’t think your child isn’t paying attention. Tobacco is notorious for being a gateway drug, so don’t smoke or at the very least avoid smoking in front of your kids. You are your child’s most important and influential role model, and it’s important that they see you practice what you preach.
14. Be honest about your past
There’s going to come a day when, if you haven’t discussed it already, your child is going to ask you about your experience with drugs. If you’ve used in the past, don’t lie about it — chances are, he or she will eventually find out the truth and you’ll seem hypocritical. Instead, take the opportunity to have an honest conversation: were you feeling pressure from friends to experiment? Did you end up feeling horrible detoxification symptoms the following day? Did you get into major trouble with your parents, your job, or school? Even if nothing particularly negative happened as a result, note how that made you lucky. Reflect on what you could have lost, what could have happened if a million little details had gone slightly differently. You may have even had friends who weren’t so lucky as to escape drug or alcohol abuse consequence-free, and if it’s someone you still keep in touch with, they could also be a wonderful person to let your child speak with. Hearing about first-hand experience makes the information more accessible, even reliable, for your child, so don’t be afraid to tell the truth.
15. Keep your child busy
A child with a schedule simply doesn’t have time to worry about experimenting with drugs or alcohol, so get him or her involved in activities, sports, or clubs they find interesting. When possible, aim for groups with leaders you know well and respect. As they get older, help them find opportunities to be a leader themselves. This is especially important during breaks from school like summer vacation and winter break. For some kids, trying something risky is just a cure for boredom, so don’t give them the opportunity. Just be sure not to overload your child with too many things to do; a busy schedule is good, but an overwhelming one can lead to major stress and actually lead them to resort to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.
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16. Be especially vigilant during tough times
If you’re going through a divorce or have recently moved to a new city, your child is likely experiencing quite a few emotions that may be hard to handle. These are the times that your attention and support are perhaps the most crucial. If they’ve never dealt with this kind of major change or trauma, they might feel so overwhelmed that drugs and alcohol start to seem like the answer. Talk to your child about how he or she is handling everything and if there is anything you can do to help. They might be feeling some anger toward you, and that’s OK. Let them know that they’re allowed to feel their feelings, but that you’ll always be there no matter what. Don’t be discouraged if they try to shut you out; keep trying to communicate, but don’t push them. If they seem to be having an especially difficult time, ask whether or not your child would be interested in seeing a counselor. Let him or her know it’s not that something is “wrong” with them, but that you wonder if it might help to have an impartial party to confide in. Remember, don’t push, but let them know there are options.
17. Keep your alcohol and prescription drugs out of reach
When they’re incurably curious or going through a tough time, having the temptation of drugs and alcohol directly in reach can cause even the best-behaved children to take advantage. Keep your alcohol locked up and check it regularly to ensure it hasn’t been tampered with. If you, your partner, or any of your kids have prescription medications — be it painkillers, stimulants, anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, or ADHD medications — keep them in a locked cabinet and always know how many pills you have. If you do spot a discrepancy, be sure to consult your partner before making any accusations. You could have simply miscounted or forgotten that pill that fell down the drain last week, so get your facts completely straight before leaping to conclusions or confronting your child.
If after speaking with your partner you do have significant reason to believe your child has stolen drugs or alcohol, address the issue immediately. Ask your child if he or she knows what may have happened, and give them the opportunity to explain. Remember that there could be an explanation that you haven’t considered. For example, perhaps your teen was worried about an upcoming trigonometry test and thought swiping a few of his or her brother’s ADHD pills would help them study better. Hearing them out can give you important insight into what’s really going on and help you identify and address any underlying issues. Plus, it’s an opportunity to show your child that your intention truly is to help and guide them, not to simply lecture and punish.
18. Be mindful of how you handle stress
Most of us can relate to indulging in a glass of wine after a long day of work, but be careful that you don’t turn to alcohol each and every time you’re feeling stressed out. If your kids get the idea that you’re dependent on alcohol to get you through the tough times — whether or not that’s actually the case — it can make experimenting with substances seem more appealing. Make sure you exhibit healthy ways of coping with stress like getting exercise and listening to music. If you’re really having a tough time, consider seeking therapy if you think it could help. Show your children that asking for help is perfectly acceptable, and that you recognize your own limitations.
19. Set aside special time to spend with your kids
Commit to family fun time each and every week. Spend Saturday mornings in the park or take a yoga class together each Wednesday evening. If your work schedule isn’t consistent from week to week, take advantage of your downtime as it comes. Engage in activities they enjoy. Surprise your teen with tickets to that movie they’ve been dying to see, or ask them to go thrift store hunting with you after work one evening. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the exact day and time each week — though if it’s possible, it may make planning easier — so long as you make sure you spend special time together consistently. Show your kids how easy it is to have fun without drugs and alcohol!
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20. Emphasize love and compassion
No matter what happens, make sure that your child knows your love is unconditional and not dependent on their attaining perfection. We’re all human and thus make mistakes. If you discover that your child has been abusing drugs or alcohol, let them know that you’re disappointed but you love them and want to help them. Do seek to understand what led them to use, but don’t judge their reasoning. Support them in seeking professional treatment and cheer them along every step of the way. Some people have a tough time when they first address their addiction, and your child may even attempt to push you away. Let them know that it’s OK if they feel angry or confused, but it will never change the fact that they are your child and you love them completely. Remember, they may have kept their problem a secret because they feared your rejection, so don’t let their worst nightmare come true. Stand by them and do your best to empathize.
If your child does fall victim to addiction despite your best efforts, don’t blame yourself. Focus on finding them help, and consider seeking counseling for yourself, as well. Heal together, and move forward.