The conversation we need to have with our children about drugs

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Before the digital world came flooding through our schools and homes, adults were the bringers of important information especially about drugs and alcohol.

Today this information is at a teen's fingertips. There are many fabulous websites that help teens learn what's what – and what's not.

So have parents become obsolete in the education of their children in the area of alcohol and other drugs?

Absolutely not.

From an early age children absorb messages from what they observe us doing and saying. So it will be difficult to warn your teen about binge drinking when they have witnessed you doing it throughout their childhood (ouch).

An ongoing conversation

There is never one conversation about these things. There are many small conversations explaining the risks and dangers.

Sharing some of the information that is available online – before puberty arrives – is really sensible. The National Drugs Campaign website, developed by the Australian Government, provides ample resources and useful information.

Once adolescence has started our children are biologically wired to question what we have to say as they are growing egocentrically to work out how the world works without parental input. This 'push back' is frustrating however normal. So please get in early.

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Today's teens are drinking less and later, although the minority who are using alcohol to excess are possibly doing it worse than ever. The levels of illegal drug use among teens is also much lower than we might perceive if we get our facts from media. Be careful not to exaggerate facts – give them factual and evidence-based information that can be found in the Illegal Drugs – Student Booklet prepared by Positive Choices. This also helps bust the myth that everyone is doing it and it's 'normal'.

They do need to know the developing brain is highly susceptible to damage and that drugs and alcohol can affect their capacity to remember and learn (to do well academically), and to make sound decisions.

When teens consume alcohol or other drugs they are also more likely to make poorer choices and be vulnerable to risk. In the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey of Year 10, 11 and 12 students in Australia 19.8 per cent of males and 28.3 per cent of females had had unwanted sex, and being under the influence of alcohol and drugs was a major contributing factor.

So adolescents especially teens under 16 need strong parental guidance and expectations. They will break boundaries – that is also a part of claiming their autonomy and there needs to be some serious conversations about consequences if they do it more than once.

Everyone deserves a second chance. Monitoring them is about loving and guidance not policing and controlling.

Another interesting thing is teens are more invested in watching out for their friends than themselves. Keeping friends close and welcoming them in your home is a huge protective factor.

Also, encourage them to find a 'lighthouse' – sometimes when a teen has really mucked up, it is easier to ask for help from a safe adult ally.

Remember rather than focusing on how they mucked up – focus on how to recover and avoid it happening again. Please forgive easily.

My top tips in talking to your kids about alcohol and other drugs

1.    Be the caring parent who sets clear boundaries and expectations.

2.    Start with small conversations based on real stories in the media, linking trauma and accidents to drugs; or stories of people who become sick or die after taking drugs.

3.    Explain to your kids that after car crashes the police test for alcohol and drugs because it often contributes to crashes.

4.    Use films and movies as conversation starters.

5.    Print fact sheets to use as a guide when having these conversations. Find a range of parent resources on the Positive Choices website.

6.    Encourage your teens to always watch out for their friends.

7.    Teach your teens about what's happening in their brain during adolescence and explain its fragility and vulnerability to alcohol and other drugs.

8.    Talking 'with' your teen rather than 'at' them will improve communication. NB: Avoid nagging, lecturing and sounding like a know-it-all.

9.    Practice caring communication.

10.  Give them life skills that mean they can save a life – CPR, knowing how to spot the signs of an adverse reaction to drugs. And what to do if someone starts violently vomiting or passes out. Alcoholic comas can kill too.

11.  Use the "what if…" technique when exploring tough subjects. This respects that they do know a lot and then you can just add the occasional suggestion.

12.  Let them know that there has never been more support out there if they are struggling with alcohol or other drugs – and that you are happy to help them seek help. For free and confidential advice about alcohol and other drugs, the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline is available - 1800 250 015. The hotline will automatically divert you to the Alcohol and Drug Information Service in your state or territory. These services offer support, information, counselling and referral to other services.

Finally, keep telling your teens that one day their brain will finally finish maturing and they will be able to manage choices so much better. Your job is to help them get to 25 alive and well – and with all their bits in tact – while they meet the challenges of life in this huge time of transformation.

Maggie Dent is one of Australia's favourite parenting authors with a particular interest in the early years, adolescence and resilience. She is presenting a seminar in Brisbane on 14th March for teens and their parents on Taming the Stress Monster in Adolescence. Visit www.maggiedent.com. The article has been written in collaboration with The Department of Health. For more drug and alcohol information, visit drughelp.gov.au