In a world where kids can get their hands on just about anything, and they're desperate to "fit in," do your part to help protect them from drug and alcohol use by having important conversations before they wind up in a risky situation.

WHEN & HOW

— Little Kids —

"With drug use affecting more families these days, you can't start [conversing about it] too young," says Cathy Taughinbaugh, parent coach with Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Lay the groundwork with young children by seizing opportunities, for instance, when giving your child an antibiotic or any other medication (i.e., for fevers or coughs), talk about why and when these medications should be given.

Keep your eyes open for teachable moments. If you and your child see a character in a TV show or movie smoking a cigarette, go ahead and mention that smoking is unhealthy and can cause a nicotine addiction. Or, if you see a drunken character (or a real person publicly intoxicated), talk about the dangers of alcohol abuse and how it hurts people. This can lead into a discussion about other drugs and how they cause harm.

The important thing is to to keep the tone of the discussion calm and use terms your young child can understand.

YOUR CHILD MAY ASK: "What are all those [medicine] bottles for?"

YOU CAN SAY: "You should only take medicine that has your name on it, because it's medicine your doctor has chosen only for you. If you take medicine that belongs to somebody else, it could be dangerous and make you sick."

YOUR CHILD MAY ASK: "What does 'high' mean?"

YOU CAN SAY: "It can mean different things. It's a feeling of excitement, like when you're very happy when we go to see the animals at zoo. That's a good, natural high. But some people like to feel good by taking drugs the doctor didn't give them, and that's bad."

FURTHER THOUGHT: When your kids are little, they seek approval from you. It's the perfect time to teach them the joys of healthy living along with dangerous substances in his environment.

— Big Kids —

In a non-judgmental, open-ended way, start a conversation by asking your child what he thinks about alcohol and drugs. If your child is uncomfortable with the topic, or shows no interest, let him know you are available to talk whenever he is. Hopefully he'll come to you with questions, but if not, he's finding his answers elsewhere.

Pay close attention to your child's concerns and questions. Be open to his queries and try not to show your shock if you are shocked. If your child's discussion includes false information about drugs or alcohol, gently give him the correct info. Explain he may come across more incorrect info, but he can always check everything with you.

Be aware of drug-related news your child may hear (like "Michael Jordan smoked pot"). Make sure your child understands the consequences of the drug use.

YOUR CHILD MAY SAY: "But you drink wine at dinner and Dad drinks beer on weekends."

YOU CAN SAY: "There is no problem with adults drinking responsibly. Enjoying small amounts of wine over a meal, or having a couple of beers during the baseball game is a normal part of our culture. Becoming drunk and incapacitated is not OK, even for Mom and Dad."

FURTHER THOUGHT: Psychotherapist Jennie Miller says parents who do consume alcohol need to establish healthy boundaries. "It's out there in the wider world, so the key is to model positive behavior for children. Savoring a glass of wine with a meal is not a problem, nor is a discussion about who is the designated driver if you go out to a party. It's good for children to see that type of responsibility," she says.

— Teens —

Most teens know other kids who use alcohol or recreational drugs. Be prepared to answer more specific questions. Talk about real the risks of drug and alcohol use. For example, explain that drunk driving is not only illegal but can result in injuring or killing someone else or themselves. Using illegal substances and underage drinking can also result in legal consequences.

Ask your teen if he understands the physical damage that excessive drinking can create with brain and neurological functioning. Don't be afraid to ask if any of his friends drink or do drugs.

Let your teen know that every drug changes one's physical and psychological state in some way. Explain that drugs fall into three groups: 1) Everyday substances like coffee or prescription medication; 2) Legal recreational drugs like alcohol and nicotine (cigs and vapes); 3) Illegal drugs like meth, cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, etc.

Be upfront about people using drugs/medications for different reasons, including treating illnesses; pain relief; feeing "up" and energetic; feeling relaxed or calm; falling asleep.

YOUR CHILD MAY ASK: "Why do I have to wait until I'm 21 to drink alcohol?"

YOU CAN SAY: "It's the legal drinking age because people tend to be more responsible at that age than when they are younger, and they don't just drink to be cool in front of their friends."

YOUR CHILD MAY ASK: "Did you do drugs when you were my age?"

YOU CAN SAY (IF YOU DID DO DRUGS): "I tried drugs because some kids I knew were experimenting, and I thought I needed to try drugs to fit in. It took me a while to discover that's never a good reason to do anything. Do you ever feel pressured like this?" ... Or,  "Everyone makes mistakes, and trying drugs was a mistake I made. It made me do some dumb things. It's hard to look back and see that I got anything good out of the experience. I love you too much to watch you repeat bad decisions I made."

FURTHER THOUGHT: If you dabbled with drugs in your own youth, experts say it's never a good idea to lie to your child if he asks if you've ever done drugs. You can be honest without going into too much detail. There's no need to tell your kid you smoked pot 162 times. Remember, this is a conversation, not a courtroom.

THE WAY YOU ARE MATTERS

The way you handle yourself with your kids when discussing tough stuff is important.

• Stay calm
• Keep an open mind
• Don't lecture
• Thank your child for coming to you with questions
• Always take a moment to remind your child you care deeply about his well-being

The American Psychological Association says the following attributes will help you:

• Think about what you want to say: It's OK to practice in your head (and with another adult) what you want to say. A little advanced planning will make discussions easier — that way you won't have to talk off the top of your head.

• Keep talks age-appropriate:  There's no reason to talk over your child's comprehension. Use terms your child can understand

• Find the right moment: Best time to talk will be when your child can be the center of your attention and there aren't a lot of distractions. Consider taking a walk or just hanging out in his room.

• Know that sometimes there's no "right" moment: Be aware that tough subjects will come up on the fly sometimes, catching you off guard. Try not to fly off the handle, answer as easily as you can and make a mental note that you want to make more time to address the subject with your child.

• If you don't know what to say, take time: It's always OK to pause and say, "Let me give this some thought and we'll talk about this some more."

• One subject at a time: Try to create an environment where your child will welcome your talks. If you keep conversations easy going and friendly without judgment, you create an open environment where he'll feel free to talk.

• Keep your talk real but brief: Kids don't want you to talk on and on. They get things quickly and will accept what you say. 

• Find out what your child already knows: For example, your parent friends know that an older kid was found trying to sell marijuana to middle schoolers. Ask your child, "What have you heard about this?" Then listen more than talk.

• Share your feelings: Your kids see you're human when you share your feelings. Be a role model with your emotions.

• Be truthful: Lay out the facts as best you know without graphic details.

FURTHER READING

ONLINE RESOURCES & BOOKS

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids

Natural High

National Institute on Drug Abuse

Just Say Know: Talking with Kids About Drugs & Alcohol
By Cynthia Kuhn, Ph.D. and Scott Swartzwelder, Ph.D.
W.W. Norton & Co.; $14.95

Straight Talk: Drugs and Alcohol
By Stephanie Paris
Time for Kids; $10.31

Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs: What Your Kids Really Want and Need to Know About Alcohol and Drugs
By Paul Dillon
Allen & Unwin; $23.95

LOCAL HELP IF YOUR CHILD IS IN TROUBLE

Alcoholics Anonymous
615-831-1050

Cumberland Heights (Detox & Treatment), Nashville
615-356-2700

Narcotics Anonymous
818-700-0700

Parthenon Pavilion (Detox), Nashville
615-342-1450

Rolling Hills Hospital (Detox & Treatment), Franklin
855-774-2383

Vanderbilt Behavioral Health Addictions Program (Detox)
615-327-7000