By Susan Kurlander, M.Ed.
Much research has been done in the area of substance abuse prevention, but the two things that stand out are:
- Society must start educating children as to the realities, effects, and impacts of drug and alcohol use when they are young — as early as preschool age.
- Parents must be involved in their children’s education from day one.
Why is it important to start early? Because children’s exposure starts early. Most children from infancy have needed to take medicine (Tylenol, cough syrup, antibiotics), which is a drug.
A drug is a substance that when it enters the body can change the way one thinks, feels, or acts. If we build a healthy respect for medicine when our children are young, then the transference of having a healthy respect for other drugs such as alcohol – which they may be exposed to in later years – will, hopefully, follow.
Is it difficult for you to equate what we think of as medicine being a “good” drug with the “hard” drugs such as heroin and cocaine being the “bad” drugs and alcohol falling somewhere in the middle? Then think about the opioid epidemic in our country which for many people started because they were prescribed painkillers after surgery. Think about the alcoholic who experimented with alcohol as a teen but then realized that it could numb unmanageable feelings.
Maybe a healthier way to help our children understand the need to make healthy choices about what they put in their bodies is to recognize that, for most drugs, what makes them “less risky” or “more risky” (instead of saying “good” or “bad”) is the decision they make about the drug:
- Why are they putting the drug in their body?
- How much of the drug they are using?
- When are they using the drug?
Here are some suggestions for helping children, age appropriately, gain that healthy respect to make less risky choices, especially those involving alcohol:
- Be aware of your choices regarding the use of alcohol. If you have wine with dinner at a restaurant, is someone else driving home?
- Be conscious of the message you are sending when making decisions about alcohol. For example, coming home and immediately saying, “I had a rough day at work. I need a drink.” Are there other ways to handle stress that your child will witness you doing, such as taking a walk or resting?
- Use teachable moments whenever possible. Explain why drivers who are stopped by the police may be given a breathalyzer test or asked to walk a straight line if alcohol use is suspected. (Refer to the definition of a drug)
- Explain the possible consequences of “silly” or “sloppy” behavior, such as falling down steps or becoming angry or violent, that your child may see and think is funny from a TV character who has been drinking.
- Raise your child’s awareness about how the media influences our use of alcohol. Beer commercials, for example, are geared toward young people around the age of 14. That is why the ads/commercials often use funny animals, popular music, beautiful outdoor scenery, and people who are exemplifying what appears to be an amazing lifestyle.
- Help your child understand, age appropriately, if someone in your family has a problem with alcohol. If the person is an alcoholic, you may want to explain that alcoholism is a disease and not a moral judgment.
- Reinforce that decisions young people under the legal drinking age make related to alcohol may have legal ramifications and consequences.
There are many tools adults can use when talking with their children about the use/abuse of and addiction to substances, including alcohol. The discussion and efforts to minimize or delay the onset of risky behaviors needs to be ongoing with the focus depending on the child’s age, nature, and stage of development. The one tool that can be consistent and never underestimated is the following statement that should be posted somewhere in every household:
“When you choose a behavior, you choose a consequence.” Positive consequences are easy to accept. When substances are involved, the consequences may be far too risky and damaging to overcome.
Susan Kurlander M.Ed., is a Health Educator at Jewish Community Services
JCS is a comprehensive human services organization providing a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or 410-466-9200.