The best way to avoid becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol is to never start using them in the first place.  This is inarguable and indisputable, yet most people do try one or both in their lifetimes.  In some cases, the consumption of drugs and alcohol comes far too early in one’s life, and this early exposure, combined with other factors, can set someone up for a lifetime of addiction.  Abstinence education, when it comes to drugs and alcohol, has been the norm for decades, and to some extent it is effective. Often, children and teens will encounter these intoxicating substances on their own and will then have to make their own decisions.  Some will choose to use, and some will just say no.  Some who use will turn out just fine in the long run; others will unfortunately experience long-term dependency and all the terrible things that come along with it.

So, if the best bet is to encourage abstinence, then what is the best way to keep young people from using?  Short of that, what is the most effective way to at least inform them about the possible risks of using?  The answer to that question is prevention education. Although it doesn’t always work completely or comprehensively in any population or age group, warning children and teens about the potential dangers of drugs and alcohol as early and as often as possible is vital.  Certainly, not every child will heed the warnings, but prevention education saves enough lives every year to make it worthwhile in both schools and the community as well as in homes and within families.

How young is too young to educate?  Truly, prevention education should start from a very young age, since children are encountering the opportunity to use drugs and alcohol younger and younger these days.  According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration indicate that some children are already abusing drugs or alcohol as young as ages 12 or 13.  Although it’s unlikely that your preschooler will have access to harmful substances, nor the lack of supervision to consume them, children even at that young age can be taught about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.  As a child ages, he or she should be consistently exposed to more and more age appropriate information on the subject right on up through school and into adulthood.  Discussions should not be “one and done,” but rather an ongoing conversation that continues as the child grows and develops.  Schools generally address the topic of drugs and alcohol at all levels, but parents should be doing so at home, as well, for optimum results.

Read on to learn more about age appropriate suggestions to discourage substance use and eventual abuse and addiction in your family.

Preschool (Age 2-4 years)

            It may seem crazy to some parents to begin drug use prevention talks at this age, but the earlier that the lines of communication open, the better.  Children at this age may be exposed to the concept of drugs through ingestion of medications when they are sick or the routine of a daily vitamin.  Point out that there are good drugs, and there are bad drugs, and even the good drugs must be taken according to the instructions on the bottle or from the doctor.  Also, point out other dangerous substances around the house such as cleaning products and other chemicals and explain that there are many things in the world that can hurt us if we aren’t careful.  Remind him or her that we all must take care of our bodies and make good choices about what we put inside of them.  Your child may see an adult drinking or smoking and may ask questions about it; this too is a great opportunity to discuss healthy choices.  At this age, the focus should be on teaching the child how to do the right things to stay happy and healthy.

Elementary (Age 5-8 years)

            At this age, your son or daughter will likely have a lot of questions, and you should try to answer them to the best of your ability.  Remember, if you don’t know the answer to something, it’s perfectly fine to admit that and to go try to find an answer.  Continue to impart to your child the importance of doing all you can to stay healthy.  Focus on the present, as long term possibilities are often too abstract for this age group.  Try to set a good example for your child by not drinking alcohol or smoking in front of them, and also do whatever you can to bolster their self-image and self-esteem.   Children who feel strong and confident about themselves are far less likely to do drugs or drink alcohol, and will succeed in other areas, too.

Preteen (Age 9-12 years)

            As your child gets closer to his or her teenage years, he or she is much more likely to be exposed to drugs or alcohol, and likely does not yet have the skills or knowledge to say no firmly or understand the consequences of actions, so this time period is very important for drug use prevention.  Make sure the lines of communication are wide open and frequently remind your child that you are there to talk about anything they want or need.  Give him or her scripted responses for specific scenarios so they will be armed with them when the time comes.   Set rules and make them very clear, and most of all, stick to them.  Boundaries are extremely important in any parent-child relationship, but when it comes to drugs and alcohol, they are even more critical. 

Teen (Age 13-18 years)

            High school can be a stressful and confusing time for anyone, and when drugs and alcohol are available, things can get bad very fast.  If you suspect your child is using – even once – you must address it swiftly, calmly, and clearly.  Explain that this behavior is not acceptable, but also remind your child that you know what its like to be a teenager and that you are there for him or her for support no matter what.  Remind your child that peer pressure is a very real thing, and he or she must be strong to stand up to it.  Also, at this age, be aware of who your son or daughter is spending time with, and encourage him or her to seek out friends that make good choices.  Stay positive and encouraging, continue to set boundaries, and consistently build and reinforce your child’s confidence and self-esteem.

Young Adult (Age 19-25 years)

            At this age, your son or daughter may be moving out of your home to attend college or enter the workforce, but that doesn’t mean your job is over.  Young adulthood can be the most stressful time in your child’s life, simply because he or she is becoming more independent.  Individuals in their early twenties often struggle with many things due to becoming an adult, but being new to the entire concept.   During this time, you must continue to keep the lines of communication open and offer support in whatever ways you can.  Ask a lot of questions and watch for signs of difficulty.  Mental health issues often begin to surface during young adulthood too, and they can be exacerbated by drug and alcohol use, so be especially vigilant regarding changes in personality or behavior during this time as well.

            And it doesn’t stop there, either.  You are a parent as long as you are living, so all of these things continue to be important onward into adulthood beyond young adulthood, too.   The fact of the matter is – to keep your child safe from drugs and alcohol, you must always be informing, observing and supporting – no matter what your child’s age.  However, also be aware that even if you do all the right things, there is a possibility that your son or daughter will still use, and will still become addicted.  Don’t blame yourself.  Some things are out of your hands, and all you can do is your very best.  Start young, and be consistent, and you will have a much better shot at success.

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