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Ask experts what parents do wrong when it comes to preventing children from using drugs and alcohol, and many share this image: A parent comes home from a tough day at work and announces he or she needs a drink. Or there's a promotion — great cause for celebration — and the wine bottle comes out.
Parents who use alcohol to celebrate, to wind down after a tough day or to rev up to socialize set children up to use alcohol and drugs. Few things have power to derail young lives as thoroughly as substance abuse, but parents are often oblivious to the signs — and to the messages they send their children that may encourage use, experts explained.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that 23 million Americans need treatment related to drug and alcohol use, including minors. For some children, drinking starts as young as 8 or 9, drug use not much later.
"If you had a tough day, talk about it, verbalize it. Take a hot shower. Turn on music and relax a little," said Stephen Wallace, director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. "Do not model alcohol use as a way to self-medicate."
Parents have more power than they may recognize: They are the top reason that children make good choices, Wallace said.
Talk, talk, talk
Conversation is the "single most potent weapon" against drug and alcohol use, he said. "When parents take time to engage early and often in honest dialogue and express parental expectations, children are much less likely to use alcohol and drugs."
Wallace described a "big spike" in alcohol use starting between sixth and seventh grade, so addressing the topic around high school time may be years too late. At the least, children have seen others experimenting.
"Talk often and encourage them to come to you with concerns. And when they do, don't freak out," said Jesse Matthews, a licensed psychologist in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. "Many parents encourage communication, but then discourage it by overreacting."
Talk about drugs and alcohol, "but don't demonize them. You want to instill good values in your children, but you cannot control them," he said. "Teenagers are often rebellious, so being too controlling will only encourage more of this."
The "big" talk about drugs and alcohol is probably less effective than snippets here and there. One of the best ways to have serious chats is walking or sitting in the car. It's less threatening and will probably not come across so much as a lecture, said Dr. Karen Khaleghi, co-founder of Creative Care, an addiction treatment facility in Malibu, California.
If a parent blows the conversation, her advice is revisit it directly. She's gone back to her son, she said, and admitted she didn't do a conversation justice because she was distracted.
Parents need to help kids plan for situations where they don't want to imbibe or do drugs, but they also don't want to appear uncool. Conversations can yield strategies.
A zero-tolerance policy works, too, Wallace said. Kids need to know expectations and consequences. "It needs to be a conversation, not an edict. When it comes to parenting style, the most effective is authoritative — high on both warmth and control."
David Gomel, senior vice president and COO of The Rosecrance Health Network in Rockford, Illinois, has important conversations about drugs and alcohol at work, but also at home, where he's dad to two teens and a preteen. "I am looking for opportunities, the teachable moments as they arrive, which is often in the car or as we watch TV or in a conversation about a friend who may be more progressive than my kids are."
Gomel criticizes parents who supply alcohol for kids and their friends on the theory that "they'd drink anyway but at least they're here and safe." He is blunt when talking to parents of his children's friends: "It is not OK for my kids to use alcohol, just so you know."
Khaleghi advocates parenting that is attentive and focused. Parents should look for the root of problem behavior and recognize that children who feel at ease in the world and can soothe themselves when they feel worried or challenged are less likely to use drugs or alcohol. Khaleghi said children with addictive, nervous traits need a strong support network so they won't fall prey to temptation or peer pressure.
"Addiction forms over time through a series of events. There are ways for parents to prevent and address addictive behavior," Khaleghi said. "Parents follow nutrition guidelines to create healthy eaters, read to kids to create lifelong learners and limit bad language around them to create respectful adults. Children take their cues and model behavior after what they witness at home."
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