Talking About Drugs with Middle Schoolers
Strengthening Your Relationship
Your child’s transition to middle school (or junior high) calls for special vigilance. If you began having regular conversations with your child at a young age, the child should know by now – without a doubt – where you stand on the subject of drugs and alcohol. If you didn’t have those conversations earlier, it’s not too late to start! In fact, this is the time when you should spend even more time talking and listening, as your child is likely seeing more substance use on television, in movies, and online – and at school or in social situations. Children this age are capable of engaging in more in-depth conversations about why people use drugs, the potential dangers (such as addiction or fatal overdose), and the consequences for the user and his family.
How To Talk With Your Middle Schooler (Ages 11-14)
Take the lead.
Your child may not initiate as many conversations about drugs and alcohol with you as before. If that’s the case, it’s important for you to take the lead and engage your child in discussions at every opportunity by using real-life events in the news or in your own lives. For example, your child tells you that a friend named Kevin rode in a vehicle driven by an older brother, who was smoking marijuana while driving. Explain to your child the importance of not riding in a car with someone who is using alcohol or drugs, and explain what to do in that situation. You might say, “What Kevin’s brother did was illegal, and he could go to jail if caught. But more important, he could have had a serious accident. I hope you know you can call me if that ever happens to you, and I will come and get you. You’ll be driving in a few years, and I’m glad you are smart enough to know better than to drink or do drugs and drive.”
Encourage healthy growth
Conversations with your child should also include talking about his interests. Activities such as youth groups, arts, music, sports, community service, and academic clubs keep children occupied, develop team-building skills, provide a sense of discipline, and sometimes help kids discover talents they didn’t realize they had. Encourage your children to share their dreams. At the very least, ask what types of activities they enjoy, and then find a way to nurture those interests in positive ways.
In this age range, preteens begin going through physical changes, and they start to care more about their self-image. Girls, especially, tend to pay more attention to hair and fashion. As you notice this happening, initiate conversations with your child about how he or she looks. Point out the obvious downsides to smoking, such as bad breath and stinky hair. You might even expand that into talking about the long-term risks, such as lung cancer and emphysema. For children who are interested in sports, encourage them to stay healthy and avoid anabolic steroids as a “quick fix” for enhancing their performance.
Friends and their parents
Friends become extremely important during this transition. Kids want to fit in or feel normal around older teens who may expose them to alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. So in addition to talking to your own child, get to know your children’s friends. If you’re giving a group of kids a ride to the mall, for example, make small talk with the friends by asking about their interests, their family, what music or television shows they like, etc. And as discussed earlier in this publication, get to know the parents of your child’s friends and share with them your desire to raise a drug-free child. You may find some who do not share your attitude and beliefs about drugs and underage alcohol use. But think of it this way: if they do agree and your child regularly hangs out with the same five friends, you could have as many as 10 extra parents keeping their eyes and ears on your child’s activities!
Practice makes perfect
Your ongoing conversations with your children should include how to respond if someone offers them drugs or alcohol. Let your child practice his answers. “No, thanks. I’m not into that.” or “Nah, I play on the basketball team and don’t want to risk it.” Assure your children you will come get them any time – without scolding—if they need to leave a place where alcohol or drugs are being used. If you can’t be available, find a responsible adult who will go in your place.
Asking and listening
Remember, your role as a parent (or caregiver) isn’t just to talk but also to listen. Since your child may not ask as many questions at this age, it’s up to YOU to ask open-ended questions that require more than a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Conversation starters can come from the media (advertising, song lyrics, movies, TV shows) or from real life. For example, you might say, “What do you think about the lyrics in this song – when the guy sings, ‘I took a pill in Ibiza, to show Avicii I was cool?’ What does that make you think? How do you feel about that?”
A particular concern – Inhalants
Just as with elementary school students, the use of inhalants is of particular concern at this age. In a 2011 survey, 7 percent of eighth-graders reported using inhalants in the year prior to the survey, and 39 percent of eighth-graders didn’t consider the regular use of inhalants to be harmful. This is troubling because inhalants can cause unconsciousness, severe damage to the brain and nervous system, and even death—the first time they are used! Yet 64 percent of the eighth-graders surveyed didn’t think trying inhalants once or twice was risky. Young teens may not understand the risks of inhalant use, so it’s up to you to educate them about the dangers.
What do they think?
Continue to teach your children to be critical of how drugs and alcohol are portrayed in videos, movies, and television shows. Do they think engaging in promiscuous behavior after drinking too much is attractive or disgusting? Does a video that shows drugs make them curious enough to want to try them? Continue to talk to your kids often about making good choices and about healthy living and goal setting.
Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Department of Education, Growing Up Drug Free: A Parent’s Guide to Prevention, Washington, D.C. 2012.
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