As with most things in my parenting life, I am woefully behind schedule.
On November 19, families throughout the country took part in the National Night of Conversation, an event designed to facilitate discussion about drug abuse and addiction. My family, however, was knee-deep in social-studies projects, multiplication tables, and various sports practices.
There was no Instagrammed picture of an empty plate that night, because we ate from paper sacks. There was no conversation at the table on November 19, because we ate dinner in the car on the way back from the YMCA. We are, like the many families reading this, busy with our school and work lives.
So we missed it.
But though I may have missed the event, the opportunity for the discussion is always there.
Charla Simonson and Jennifer Zimmerman-Grimmick are high school counselors in the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District. They say there isn’t a single “good” time to talk to your kids about drugs. Events like the National Night of Conversation are good for raising awareness, they say, but they should be part of constant, open communication with your children about these tough issues.
“Take the opportunity any time to have this conversation,” says Simonson. “You don’t need an event or a big social media campaign. Use things in the news and stories your kids may hear as jumping off points for talking.”
“If you think about it, it’s just like academics,” says Zimmerman-Grimmick. “You don’t just do something once and master it. It’s an ongoing learning process.”
I have every intention of broaching this serious, literally life-and-death subject with them, but when I look across the table at my 12- and 8-year-old I begin to wonder if they’re ready for it – or if they really need it.
The experts say they are, and they do.
CASAColumbia is a national nonprofit research and policy organization focused on the prevention and treatment of substance use and addiction. A 2011 study by the group found that 9 out of 10 people who have substance abuse problems as adults began using before they were 18 years of age.
“What parents don’t realize is that we need to be talking to kids at a young age,” says Simonson, “probably younger than what most parents are comfortable with.”
“You can’t wait,” echoes Zimmerman-Grimmick. “Don’t wait for kids to be exposed to drugs or have a friend who uses drugs or alcohol before you have that conversation.”
Ok. But what do I say? And do I say the same thing to my 8-year-old that I would to my soon-to-be teenager? Is eight too young to even talk about drug use?
“I don’t think so,” says Simonson. “Eight is probably a good age. Little kids look up to their older siblings that may be having this conversation, and these may be issues that other role models in the media or in sports may deal with.”
And for younger kids, they say the conversation doesn’t have to be so in depth.
“The conversation can revolve around healthy living,” says Zimmerman-Grimmick. “You can work talking about drug use into a conversation about the dangers of smoking or the benefit of eating healthy.”
For the teens and pre-teens in our lives, the issue is a lot more complex. It extends well beyond a conversation about the dangers of drug use and requires patience and vigilance. Emphasis on the vigilance.
“Be a snoop,” says Simonson. “Know your kids’ passwords to their devices, know their social media accounts, and look for separate accounts that you may have been unaware of.”
Simonson and Zimmerman-Grimmick say that parents can get a sense of their children’s attitudes toward drugs and drug use by monitoring what they and their friends post to social media.
Another thing parents can do for teens is get them involved in sports or other school activities. This builds self-esteem and can assuage peer pressure to engage in substance abuse.
“The students that are not involved in drugs are invariably involved in other things,” says Simonson. “Self-esteem isn’t going to come from a conversation, you have to build it over time. So my recommendation to all parents is to get their children involved in other things.”
“And if you do see signs of low self-esteem in your kids, do something immediately,” says Zimmerman-Grimmick, “before they look for some other means like drugs to make them feel better.”
So I’m not late, but I do have my work cut out for me. These are tough, but worthwhile, discussions to have with my boys. Luckily, the folks behind the National Night of Conversation developed this very useful guide for starting – and sustaining – the talk about substance abuse. Click here to view the guide.
I’m going to use it, and I encourage you to do the same.
And I’m going to take to heart a piece of wisdom that Simonson and Zimmerman-Grimmick imparted to me: Stop thinking of this as a something that happens to other kids.
“Have your mind and eyes and ears open,” says Zimmerman-Grimmick. “Our kids encounter so much peer pressure and experience such a wide range of emotions, it would be naïve to think that this couldn’t happen to your child.”
If you do find that your child has used or is using drugs or other substances, there are a number of great online resources to help guide your next steps:
- The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and a direct link to their “Parent Toolkit”
- National Institute on Drug Abuse
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA)
And remember – you’re not alone. Let your child’s school be a partner in his or her success and reach out to them if you’re dealing with an issue like substance abuse.
Bill DeVoe has been a communications specialist with Capital Region BOCES since 2011. He is running too far behind schedule to write any more of his bio.
Copyright ©2015 by Parent Today and Capital Region BOCES; Used with permission