Alcohol and Drug Abuse

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Harvard Medical School
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Alcohol and Drug Abuse

Mental Health
Injury and Illness Prevention
Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Use education to keep your child safe from alcohol and drugs.
InteliHealth Medical Content
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Alcohol and Drug Abuse

Many children try their first drink of alcohol or try other drugs at a very young age. Although parents may find it hard to believe that their school-aged child might take a drink of alcohol or use other drugs, it is true! How can this happen? It is no surprise that what children see and hear influences them. They are surrounded by images of alcohol and drugs — in movies, television shows and magazines, on billboards, in song lyrics, and on promotional items such as t-shirts, hats and backpacks. Advertisements try to sell these types of products by making it look like people who use them are popular, beautiful or wealthy.

So what can you do as a parent? You can help your child learn the real truth about alcohol and drug use. This is best accomplished if you talk to your child about drugs and alcohol, starting at a young age. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, on behalf of the U. S. Department of Education, offers this advice for teaching your child about drugs.

Children in kindergarten through third grade (5 to 8 years old) are becoming more interested in the world around them, outside their family and home. You should start to discuss with your child:

  • What alcohol, tobacco and drugs are
  • That some people use alcohol, tobacco and drugs even though they are harmful
  • That anything put in our body other than food can be extremely harmful
  • How drugs interfere with the way our bodies work and can make a person very sick or even cause them to die
  • That drug use can become a very bad habit (addiction) that is hard to stop

Praise your child regularly for taking good care of his body and avoiding things that might harm him. By the time your child is in third grade, he should understand:

  • How foods, poisons, medicines and illegal drugs differ
  • How medicines from a doctor can help during illness, but can be harmful if taken by the wrong person or in the wrong way. Children should never touch medicines unless given to them by a responsible adult
  • That adults may drink but children may not, even in small amounts, because it’s harmful to children’s developing brains and bodies

Children in grades four through six (9 to 11 years old) can handle more information and more in-depth discussions. Children this age love to learn facts and want to know how things work. You should talk with your child about:

  • Why people are attracted to drugs
  • How drugs can cause serious problems in people’s lives, such as car accidents or divorce
  • How drugs affect a user’s brain or body
  • How taking too much of anything, whether it’s cough medicine or acetaminophen (Tylenol), can be dangerous

During these later elementary school years, friends become increasingly important to your child, and may sometimes seem more important than family. Since he wants to fit in with (be accepted by) his friends, peer pressure may cause him to try risky behaviors that he wouldn’t do otherwise, such as smoking, drinking or taking drugs. When your child enters middle or junior high school, he will be exposed to larger groups of children, including many who are older and who may already be experimenting with alcohol, tobacco or drugs. In order for your child’s anti-drug attitude to be strong when faced with these pressures, it is essential that your child understand the following before leaving elementary school:

  • The immediate effects of alcohol, tobacco and drug use on different parts of the body, including the risk of coma or death
  • The long-term consequences — how and why drugs can be addicting and make users lose control of their lives
  • The reasons why drugs are especially dangerous for growing bodies
  • The problems that alcohol and other illegal drugs cause not only to the user, but to the user’s family and to the world

Role-play with your child to prepare him for dealing with pressure from his friends to try alcohol or other drugs. Pretend to be a classmate or friend offering your child a drink and let your child practice different responses. Give your child permission to use you as an excuse, “My mom/dad will kill me if I drink a beer!” Preteens list “upsetting my parents” as one of their top reasons for not using marijuana.

It is most important that you talk with your child today about the dangers of alcohol and drug use! Use any and every opportunity to do so. In a survey of fourth graders, two of three said that they wished their parents would talk more with them about drugs. Do not worry that you will “put ideas into his head.” If you do not talk with your child, he will learn about drugs and alcohol from the world around him. He would much rather learn from you, his favorite, most-trusted, and best teacher.

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alcohol,drug use
Last updated August 12, 2014

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