Many communities around the country are faced with the reality that an alarming number of young people are trying tobacco, alcohol and other dangerous drugs. Many others are using them regularly. The numbers can be startling. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that by the 8th grade, 30% of adolescents have consumed alcohol, 16% have smoked cigarettes, and 15% have used marijuana. By the time that teens reach their senior year in high school, 42% report drinking alcohol in the past 30 days with 28% reporting being drunk at least once in the same period. Youths who try drugs, are at a significantly greater risk of drug abuse in the future. In fact, 50% of youth who drink alcohol are more likely to try cocaine.
Because alcohol and tobacco can lead to the use of other drugs, they are described as "gateway" drugs. As a matter of fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse survey found that about 20 percent of 8th graders, 40 percent of 10th graders and 50 percent of 12th graders had used an illegal drug at some time during their young lives. Presentations about local drug use are increasingly being given in our schools and communities. All parents are urged to talk with their kids about drugs. In one survey, two out of three fourth-graders said they wished their parents would talk more with them about drugs.
So, where do you start and what do you say? It is best to start talking about tobacco, alcohol and drugs as early as possible, even in preschool, since kids are exposed to these things in the community and in the media at very young ages. For example, many movies contain scenes with smokers and alcohol-branded merchandise, such as t-shirts and sports caps, exposing children to alcohol names. Unfortunately, these images usually give them only a small part of the whole picture. Parents need to give them all the facts. Teach them about the real dangers of tobacco, alcohol and drug use.
No matter how old your child is, these principles apply:
In addition to the above suggestions, here are a few age-specific tips (adapted from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America) for talking with your child about substance abuse:
Preschool (3 to 4 years old):
Kindergarten through grade 3 (5 to 8 years old):
Grades 4 to 6 (9 to 11 years old)
Grades 7 to 9 (12 to 14 years old)
Grades 10 to 12 (15 to 17 years old)
We all must talk with our children today about the dangers of tobacco, alcohol, and drug use. If you do not talk with your children, they will learn all about these substances from the world around them. They would much rather hear and learn about them from you, their favorite, most trusted, and best teacher!
Henry H. Bernstein, D.O. is a Senior Lecturer in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition, he is chief of General Academic Pediatrics at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth and Professor of Pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. He is the former associate chief of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital Boston.