Listen Carefully and Know What You're Talking About
As children get older, their questions get harder to answer. This is good because it provides more opportunity for detailed discussion, but it presents some challenges too. The best way to prepare for this is to become informed about drugs and to learn to listen carefully. Too many conversations about drugs never happen because the adult feels uncomfortable or "unqualified" to carry it off.
The more you know, the less that can take you by surprise and the more opportunities you'll find to initiate conversations about drugs ... "Did you see that newspaper article about low doses of alcohol protecting against heart disease?" ... "I saw a TV show the other night about a drug called Ecstasy -- seems like pretty dangerous stuff."
Children and adolescents face a dizzying array of information, and much of it is rather poor. They may think they've gotten the facts on a drug because they've read something on an Internet site or in a magazine, but these sources are notoriously unreliable. If you are aware of the basic scientific facts, you'll be in a great position to challenge misinformation and myths calmly. (Tip: Click on Drug Education to find recommended websites for facts about drugs.)
Being a good listener is also a powerful way to get your points across. When a child or teen can tell that you are really listening, it communicates not only that you care, but also that you understand what they are saying. Both are critical. Thus it's important to let the child say all she has to say about the issue. Even if some of what she says frightens or angers you, it's important to let her have her say. It's also okay to let her know how you feel about what she thinks, but remember that she may also feel frightened or angry about the topic and may be relying on you to remain calm and supportive.
For all their apparent independence and rebellion, teens are still kids deep down and look to adults for direction and encouragement. So your job is to strike a balance between using your power and influence over their lives and providing support and encouragement. Much of this boils down to how you manage your authority.
There is a very big difference between being authoritative and being authoritarian. An authoritarian response is one that falls back on power without considering much else ... "because I said so!" Once a conversation with a teen becomes a power struggle, nobody wins. An authoritative response is much different. It relies much more on knowledge than power. The power is a backdrop to the conversation (kids know this without having to be told), but it is not in the forefront. In an authoritative stance you listen to be sure that your responses are addressing the right issues. Then you use your knowledge and experience to lay out a reasoned viewpoint and response. This does not mean that you don't wield your authority, but rather that you use it optimally, in ways that engage, rather than alienate, the child you're talking with.
What do you say, and when? There are no clear-cut prescriptions. To a great degree, you must rely on your own knowledge of the child with whom you are dealing. Research shows that the middle school years are when kids really learn about drugs. This makes sense because their mental abilities and their social environments are changing. They are becoming more independent and learning to question authority... But as we've emphasized above, younger kids can also learn to appreciate their bodies and how to keep them healthy.
Of course, some young kids will come to you with specific questions about drugs -- after seeing a reference in the media, hearing a story in the playground, or going through an elementary school drug education program. In these instances we recommend answering the questions directly and listening to determine how much the child really wants to know. Don't try to force too much information on a young child. If you have good communication with him, he'll ask for more when he's ready.
In summary, talk with young kids about the general ideas of good health and how the brain and the rest of the body work, and talk more specifically about drugs and drug effects with teens and college students.
Empower Kids to Make Their Own Decisions
The communication strategies we described above give a child both the permission and the information necessary to make healthy decisions. The next challenge is to trust and monitor that process. Sooner or later children grow up and begin to think for themselves no matter what we do. This means that, as parents or mentors, we have only a limited time to have a positive influence. It's important to use that time well.
We have to provide more than just scientific facts, love and support. It's also important to let kids know that they can resist pressure from peers and the media to use drugs and take other risks. All children will experience these pressures -- it's just not possible to insulate them completely -- so we have to let them know that the decisions are theirs. We can be available to help, but there will be many times that they won't come to us and we have to feel comfortable that we have equipped them as best we can.
Sometimes all it takes to empower a child to resist pressures is the knowledge that not all people use or even try drugs. Alcohol abuse by college students is a good example. During the past several years so much attention has been given to so-called binge drinking on college campuses that many incoming freshmen assume that nearly every student drinks excessively.
The truth is that, although about 20 percent of college students engage in heavy drinking, a comparable percentage are total abstainers, and the rest fall into the middle range, which represents moderate drinking. When provided with this information, many young students are relieved to know that they do not have to engage in heavy drinking to fit in at college.
There are some excellent ongoing surveys that track the drug use patterns of children and teens. Most of the media attention to these surveys focuses on the trends -- how many more kids are using now than five years ago, etc. (Click on Drug Education for links to these studies.)
From the book, "Just Say Know," by Cynthia Kuhn, Ph.D., Scott Swartzwelder, Ph.D., and Wilkie Wilson, Ph.D.. Reprinted with permission from W.W. Norton and Company, 2002. Pages 17 -- 20.