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Is it ever too early to start talking to your child about alcohol and other drugs?

I totally get why many parents of primary school aged children choose not to
attend my parent sessions. When you look at your 10 year-old son or daughter
the last thing you are thinking about at that stage of their life is the
possibility of them going to teenage parties and gatherings and being exposed to underage drinking or, heaven forbid, at risk of dabbling
with other drugs. It’s clear that most parents of younger children simply don’t
believe that this is an important issue at this stage of their parenting
experience and they’ll wait until their child gets closer to the age of
attending teenage parties and possibly starting to drink before trying to access
information on the topic of alcohol and other drugs.

So is this a good way of dealing with the issue and when do I recommend that
you should start talking to your kids about drugs? Now I’ve dealt with this
issue a number of times over the years but over the past
couple of weeks I’ve had a number of parents who have asked me for my thoughts on whether it is ever too early to start talking to your child about alcohol and other drugs. In my opinion, the answer is simple – no, it is never too early – although it is important that what you say and how you say it is age-appropriate.

As I’ve said many times before, I believe that you should start talking to your
child about drugs the minute you start giving them to them. We live in a
pharmaceutical world where we have become convinced that for every problem we
have, there is a drug that can fix it. Think about it for a moment – if you are
depressed, you take a pill, want to lose weight or can’t get an erection, you take a pill – we live in a ‘pill-popping’ world, where there is a medication for almost every condition imaginable. We want a ‘quick-fix’ and pharmaceutical companies are only too pleased to provide them to us. We
now start medicating our children from a very early age (far earlier than our parents ever did) and, as a result, train them to
be very effective drug users not long after they are born. You only have to look at the huge range of ‘baby-specific’ over-the-counter (OTC) medications now available to see that this is a booming market and one that pharmaceutical companies are targeting very aggressively.

Whether they be pharmaceutical, legal or illegal, our children should be
made aware of the risks associated with alcohol and other drug use. When it
comes to pharmaceutical drugs or OTC medications, children need to
be made particularly aware of the importance of appropriate use. In the first
few years of primary school drug education lessons focus on this area and do it
extremely well – in fact, this is most probably the most effective drug education provided in schools. Teachers at this stage don’t talk about drugs being ‘bad’, instead they discuss
that drugs can help people when used appropriately and it is the misuse of
drugs that actually cause the problems. The message is always the same – these drugs come in packaging with directions and it is important that you always read and follow these to make sure that you are using them as safely as possible.

Unfortunately, many parents do not take the time to talk with their children
about medicines, seemingly forgetting that they are drugs too. In the age of the 5, 7 or 10 minute consultation with a GP, we no longer
have the time to ask what the drug is that they have prescribed and even
though pharmacists will often give us some basic instructions to accompany the
drugs we are given, because we have been given the product by a doctor most of us don’t
even question how safe or how dangerous it might be. We simply take it – no
questions asked.

Over-the-counter medications are used in the same way. The last time your
child (particularly if they are a little older) complained of a headache or a pain of some description, what was the first thing you said to
them? I can almost guarantee that many of you told them to go and take a pill of some
description. I bet that you didn’t ask them why they had a headache or suggest
a non-pharmaceutical option – you went for the quick fix – you went for the
option that pharmaceutical companies have been extremely successful at selling
us. It has got to the point that using a drug to solve a problem has become
second nature.

We’re also living in a very unique time in regards to the medicinal use of a range of illicit drugs. Most would be well aware of the push across the world to legalize the use of cannabis (or at the very least, cannabis products) for medicinal purposes, with Victoria being the first Australian jurisdiction to introduce legislation in this area. There is growing evidence that MDMA (ecstasy) could be useful in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and there are a number of trials running in the US in that area. At the same time there are calls for a range of hallucinogens (particularly psilocybin found in ‘magic mushrooms’) to be investigated further for the treatment of a range of conditions including depression and pain management. This is not going to go away and really challenges the simplistic ‘drugs are bad’ message that some try to push onto young people.

So if that is the case and drug use, of some form or another, has become the
norm – it is vital that parents discuss drugs from a very young age
and, at the same time, try to avoid simplistic messages and warnings (i.e., drugs are bad) and rather discuss concepts as ‘use’ and ‘misuse’.

The truth is that most illicit drugs can be used in a positive
way. Heroin is an extremely effective painkiller and even amphetamines can be used to treat a range of medical conditions (narcolepsy, obesity and ADHD). That is not to say that these drugs are safe and that there
are safe ways to use them. All drugs, no matter what they are (even if prescribed by a doctor), have a degree of
risk associated with their use and we need to make that perfectly clear to our
children. If we can communicate these risks to them about legally available
products, such as drugs we obtain from a doctor or headache tablets we get from
the supermarket, we have a much better chance of getting quality messages about
illegal drugs (even those that may now be used for medicinal purposes) through to them effectively when they are a little older.

So am I advocating that you sit down and have the big ‘drug talk’ with your three-year-old? Of course not! I was recently in The Netherlands and met with some experts in the area of drug education who were talking about some research that they had conducted that suggested if you give too much drug-specific information, too early that you could run the risk of stimulating interest in those substances, particularly in more vulnerable young people. So it is vital that these conversations are ‘natural’, not forced, and they certainly don’t need to be drug-specific (i.e., you don’t have to sit down and talk about cannabis with a 10 year-old).

When parents of very young children ask me what these conversations should look like, I suggest they
start by doing as something as simple as taking the time to show and then read the directions contained on
the packaging before they next administer a medication to their child. This
is such a simple thing but it sends such an important message to the child about the importance of following
instructions when it comes to these products. Explain to your child
that these directions are vital as medicines, like any drug, can be extremely dangerous when
used inappropriately. Another great way of parents providing positive messages around drugs is to ensure that the next time you take your child to your GP and a prescription is issued, take a couple of minutes before you leave to ask the doctor to explain to both of you what the drug does and how it should be used. If he or she simply rips the script off their pad, hands it to you and then you walk out the door, your son or daughter is missing out on a valuable lesson in regards to ‘respecting’ a drug. What your GP has prescribed is a potentially dangerous substance if not used as directed, your child needs to understand that and ‘respect’ the drug and the possible risks associated with its use. Learn that about medicines and hopefully it will set positive foundations about other drugs in the future …

The most important thing to remember when
it comes to talking about any difficult subject, and that includes alcohol and
other drugs, is that it’s not a five-minute ‘talk’ — it’s about building an
ongoing dialogue. As
your children grow up, they will need more and more information, so start early
and build on the conversation as your teenager matures. Make sure you speak to them about the range of drugs available, with an
emphasis on those that they are most likely to come into contact with at their
particular stage of development. For the very young, including primary school
aged children, most of the conversations you will have will be around
prescription or over-the-counter medications. It may also be useful at this
time to talk to them about how you use drugs, whether they be drugs from a
doctor or alcohol and tobacco.

Always look for
opportunities in your day-to-day life to discuss the topic. If your child
overhears news stories of the day or watches television programs or movies that
touch on the topic of drugs or drug use, if it feels right, use that time to have a discussion and see what they already know and what they may want to know. But always remember that it is important that you never push the subject and make sure that the discussion is age appropriate. There are certain drugs you simply don’t need to raise with very young children (e.g., having a talk with a 10 year-old about an ‘ice bust’ that you’ve seen on the TV news is most probably not needed unless they initiate the discussion, and even then I’d keep it quite general unless you’re living in a particular area where it is a real problem). If your
child makes it clear that he or she doesn’t want to go there at that particular
time and there is not a crisis that has to be dealt with, respect their wishes
and try again later. That’s what’s so great about the casual discussions around medicines, they’re natural and don’t need to be forced and, if handled correctly, do not feel like lectures …

Looking for information or support services on alcohol or drugs?

If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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