At this age, the focus is on creating a healthy beginning and fostering positive social, emotional, and moral development that will extend through your child’s lifespan. According to the National Institute for Drug Abuse, effective prevention focuses on intervening early in a child’s development before problems develop.
Young people this age can begin to deal with abstractions and the future. They understand their actions have consequences and they know how their behavior affects others. They sometimes have a shaky self-image: they are not sure whether they are growing and changing adequately, are often in conflict with adults, are not sure where they are headed and tend to see themselves as not "okay." Strong emotional support and healthy adult role models are particularly important now to discuss the negative results of underage drinking and using drugs.
Set clear rules and role model good behavior
Make sure your teen knows your rules and the consequences for breaking those rules -- and, most importantly, that you plan to enforce those consequences if the rules are broken.
Research shows that kids are less likely to use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs if their parents have established a pattern of setting clear rules and consequences for breaking those rules; kids who are not regularly monitored by their parents are four times more likely to use drugs.3 Counteract any negative peer influence with positive parent influence. Reinforce your no-alcohol/no drug use rules/expectations often so your teen clearly understands that drinking and using drugs is not acceptable. Your teen might argue that “everyone is doing it” and not experiencing any harmful effects. Inform your teen that not only is alcohol and drug use illegal for teens but “everyone is NOT doing it” and it is not a value of your family. Emphasize how unpredictable the effects of alcohol and other drugs can be and that drug use is extremely risky, and all it takes is one bad experience to change a life. Discuss local events or stories in the newspaper to reinforce this. It is important that youth at this age hear real-life stories not what might happen to them from using alcohol. At this age, youth are fearless and feel indestructible thinking it “won’t happen to me.” Make your bottom line clear and live your values for your teen to model.
If you use tobacco or alcohol, be mindful of the message you are sending to your children. We may unknowingly be relaying a message that we don’t want. Avoid giving your teen sips of alcohol, asking them to grab you a beer from the fridge, taking your teen with you into a bar or liquor store, or asking them to pass your box of cigarettes. By avoiding these behaviors, you reinforce your message that alcohol and tobacco are not for teens and they are dangerous for growing bodies. Take a Closer Look at how you model alcohol use to your children.
Curfews: Set curfews and enforce them. Weekend curfews generally range from 9 p.m. for a 5th grader to 12:30 a.m. for a senior in high school. Set a curfew according to your child and not according to how late their friends can stay out. The possibility of extending a curfew as a result of earned trust is a great motivator for your teen.
Your teen asks, “Did you do drugs?”
What to Say
Be honest but be careful not to say too much. For example, if your teen asks if you have ever used marijuana, you can say, “I have tried marijuana but back then, we didn’t know how harmful it was. Now we know more about how bad it is and besides marijuana now is different from what it was then…much more potent and dangerous.”
Review and update the rules periodically with your teen.
Review and update house rules and family responsibilities with your teen’s participation (e.g., chores, homework, school and weekend curfews, etc.). Your teen is more likely to follow rules s/he has been involved in establishing.
Here are some things to discuss with your teen:
- Are the rules fair and the consequences appropriate?
- Should his or her chores be reassigned or limited because of homework load or after-school activities?
- Should curfews be adjusted?
Avoiding peer pressure
Brainstorm ways to say “no” in the event peers offer them alcohol or drugs.
Continue to practice ways to say “no” with your teen so they are armed with prepared answers when presented with peer pressure to use alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs. Practice short, direct ways for your teen to respond. For example, “No thanks…I have wrestling tryouts and I wanna make the team” or “No thanks…we’re going to a movie.” You want your teen to avoid lengthy, weak-sounding excuses like, “I don’t think that is a very good idea…” because such responses may invite a debate. Subsequently, your teen’s peers may try to convince them to “go with the flow.” Reassure your teen that the more times s/he says “no” the less likely they will be pressured; friends will know that they cannot influence them and alcohol and drugs aren’t something your teen does.
Teach your teen to be aware of situations that increase the likelihood of being offered alcohol or drugs.
In addition to practicing ways to say “no” with your teen, teach your teen to recognize and avoid social situations that increase the likelihood they will be offered or pressured to use alcohol or drugs. For example, walking into a house where youth are smoking cigarettes and drinking beer or hearing friends talk about sneaking alcohol from their parents to take to the bowling alley Friday night. Brainstorm possible scenarios and ways your teen can prepare for or avoid these situations without feeling like they will be ostracized for doing so.
Make it easy for your teen to leave a place where substances are being used by discussing in advance how to contact you or another trusted adult in order to get a ride home. Be available to talk about the situation when he or she arrives home.
Your teen is just starting middle school and you know that eventually, he will be offered drugs and alcohol.
What to Say
There are a lot of changes ahead of you in middle school. I know we talked about drinking and drugs when you were younger, but now I think you’ll at least hear about kids who are experimenting, if not find yourself some place where kids are doing stuff that is risky. I just want you to remember that I’m here for you and the best thing you can do is just talk to me about the stuff you hear or see. Don’t think there’s anything I can’t handle or that you can’t talk about with me, okay?
You find out that youth are selling prescription drugs at your teen’s school. Your teen hasn’t mentioned it and you want to get the conversation about it started.
What to Say
Hey, you probably know that parents talk to each other and find things out about what’s going on at school…I heard there are kids selling pills – prescriptions that either they are taking or someone in their family takes. Have you heard about kids doing this?
Talk with your teen about friendship.
Explain to your teen what it means to be a good friend and that true friends protect, look out for another, and have each other’s back. True friends do not ask each other to do things that they know are wrong and will get them in trouble, or things that are harmful. Talk often to your teen about who their friends are and the things they do with their friends. Encourage them to stick to their beliefs and values and look for friends who share those values.
Spend time with your teen and take an interest in their life
Do things together as a family.
In addition to spending one-on-one time with your teen, doing things together as a family is important to foster a sense of connection. Although your teen will naturally gravitate to their friends as they grow older, it is important that you invite, but don’t force, your teen to participate in planned family activities by making it interesting so that they want to participate. For example, “Hey, I was thinking of doing pizza and movies tonight. Know any good, new releases?” or “I thought we’d play some board games tonight. You’re really good at Trivia Pursuit and I was hoping you’d be my partner.” Ways to encourage quality family time include eating meals together, playing board games or video games like Wii, going to movies, planning family outings like camping or visits to other family, working together on family projects/volunteering, etc. Don’t forget to continue family traditions and rituals that were established when your teen was younger.
Show interest — and discuss — your teen's daily ups and downs.
Teens that have good, open communication with their parents are less likely to use alcohol and drugs. Your teen needs you to be interested in their life and available to spend private time with them to discuss what your teen feels is important in his or her life right now. Your teen’s daily dilemmas and experiences, fears about emerging sexuality, appearing different from friends, and going on to high school are “real” problems that deserve your concern and attention. Don’t let your teen’s growing independence deceive you into thinking s/he no longer needs you. Encourage conversation with your teen after school by asking specific questions about his day. Instead of general questions like “How was school?” try asking about specifics like “You were worried about your math test this morning…How did it go?” or “How did your friend Josh do at his swim meet yesterday?” Your teen will be pleased that you are interested in and remembered details about their life.
You may not always know what to say but sometimes just listening is the most powerful tool. Teenagers sometimes feel that their parents “don’t understand” or “don’t listen” which can lead to a feeling of disconnection from parents. Good listening involves reflecting back or paraphrasing what your teen has said so they know that you fully heard. Responses like, “It sounds like you are pretty angry at your coach” or “From what you are saying, it sounds like you feel she isn’t being a very good friend to you. Is that right?”
As a parent, sometimes you may feel as though your teen does not listen to you. It is important that you communicate your needs and feelings to your teen in an effective way. A simple suggestion to improve communication between you and your teen is to use “I” messages rather than “You” messages (which often create an oppositional situation). For example, instead of saying, “You always leave your dirty dishes on the table. Can’t you pick up after yourself?” say, “When you leave your dishes on the table, I get frustrated because it makes extra work for me when I get home and I’m trying to make dinner.”
Whole community prevention efforts
Quick facts about North Dakota communities.
- 59.3% of ND parents and adults do not think drinking among teenagers is acceptable in their community. (CRS 2015 Q3g.)
- 90.6% believe preventing alcohol and other drug use among youth is important. (CRS 2015 Q9a.)
- 51.3% are concerned about whether their community has sufficient alcohol and other drug prevention programs. (CRS 2015 Q9b.)
Don't just leave your child's anti-drug education up to her school.
Ask your teen what s/he's learned about drugs in school and then continue with that topic or introduce new topics. A few to consider: the long-term effects that alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs have on the human body; how and why chemical dependence occurs — including the unpredictable nature of dependency and how it varies from person to person; the impact of drug use on society — societal costs of impaired health and loss of productivity; maintaining a healthy lifestyle; positive approaches to stress reduction; or setting realistic short- and long-term goals.
Support local drug prevention efforts in the community.
Help your teen grow up drug-free by working with other parents to expand your influence locally. What can you do? Work with your school and community to establish after-school recreational activities or help establish alcohol and drug-free places to go like a local skateboard park, motor-cross course, basketball courts, swimming pools, outdoor skating rink, etc. to keep youth busy. Support local law enforcement efforts and teach your teen to respect them. Help to establish alcohol- and drug-free social events in the community. Work with your religious community to establish faith-based prevention efforts. Support officials that prioritize substance abuse prevention and are interested in funding programs that provide support for families in your community. When a community works together to create a safe and healthy environment for youth, the message that you want your teen to learn is reinforced and supported.
Discussions about alcohol and other drugs with your teen
Tell your teen about the negative effect alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs have on physical appearance.
Teens are extremely concerned with their physical appearance so will likely avoid anything that detracts from their attractiveness. Therefore, this is an ideal time to talk about how specific drugs can affect appearance in addition to information about major dangers and health problems and social consequences. During discussions, keep in mind that warnings of dire future health problems do not resonate as much as the more immediate consequences of using alcohol and drugs so be sure to mention the more immediate, observable effects caused by various substances. For example, nicotine causes bad breath, stained teeth, brown fingers, smelly hair and clothes, and ruins your skin. Alcohol causes bad breath, vomiting, and slurred speech, impaired judgment, and possibly poisoning. Methamphetamine changes one’s appearance drastically (e.g., ruins hair, skin sores and scabs) and permanently damages your brain and body (rots teeth). You can also use real-life stories from your own negative experience or local news. Tell them about a time you saw a friend or acquaintance get sick or do something they regretted as a result of using alcohol (e.g., “Uncle Joe lost his job as a truck driver because he got a DUI” or “He is lucky he didn’t hurt someone driving drunk…could have been very tragic”).
Self-esteem, self-image, and your teen
Let your teen in on all the things you find wonderful about them.
Your teen needs to hear a lot of positive comments about their life and who they are as an individual — and not just when s/he makes the basketball team. Let them know that you are proud of them and praise often. Positive reinforcement can go a long way in preventing alcohol and drug use among teens.
Take steps to enhance your teen’s self-image.
Youth at this age are very concerned with how others seem them. Furthermore, a teen’s self-esteem is closely tied to how attractive they feel. While males are pressured to look a certain way (e.g., strong, muscular build, etc.), girls are often judged more by their appearance. Youth who do not think they fit the “popular culture” norm of slenderness may be at risk and resort to substance use. Whether to mask their feelings of inferiority or taking prescriptions, herbal supplements to lose weight or in the case of boys, steroids, teens feel a great deal of pressure to conform. Discuss cultural stereotypes of beauty with your teen and remind them of previous discussions about media and advertisers targeting one’s vulnerabilities to sell their products.
In addition, help your teen live a healthy lifestyle by ensuring they receive an adequate amount of exercise, provide well-balanced meals, and keep your refrigerator and pantry stocked with appealing alternatives to junk food.
Accept everything about your teen.
One cannot control their sexual orientation any more than they can control their height. In N.D., 12% of 7-8th graders reported being harassed in 2011 because someone thought they were gay, lesbian, or bisexual.7 Therefore, it is not surprising that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) youth are at an increased risk for substance abuse, depression, and suicide. Discovering one’s sexual orientation can happen as early as 9 or 10 years of age and it is often accompanied by shock, fear, confusion, and shame. These feelings are the result of a teen’s awareness of the social stigma and oppressive attitudes some have toward this population especially in rural communities. For this reason, many will lie or keep it a secret. A supportive, tolerant attitude toward the LGBTQ community will help your teen feel more comfortable in accepting their sexual orientation. Regardless of your stance, your teen needs to know that they are loved and accepted no matter what and that s/he will not be rejected by you.