According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 26% of kids report drinking alcohol by the end of 8th grade and 21% report using an illicit drug (like cocaine, amphetamines and cannabis). These rates more than double by the end of high school, as 62% of kids report drinking and 47% report using drugs.
The temptation to use alcohol and drugs will affect many kids at some point in their life—whether by peer influences or even their own family members. As an addiction psychologist, I believe parents can use valuable practices to help with substance abuse prevention and reduce the risk of substance use disorder in children as they age.
What is substance use disorder?
A substance use disorder is defined as problematic use of alcohol or other drugs that results in significant impairment in functioning or distress. For example, increased problems at school, prolonged irritability, a lack of participation in usual hobbies and activities, and increased problems with family and friends can all be signs of substance abuse. Importantly, family history of addiction is one of the biggest risk factors for developing a substance use disorder. Research has shown that the more family members who have addiction problems, the greater the likelihood an individual will also develop a substance use disorder.
If there is a family history of addiction, explain to your child that they have a greater risk of developing a substance use problem than their peers, and in order to avoid problems, your child cannot use substances like some of their friends do. Remind them that these conversations are not to shame but to educate them—just in the way you would with any other genetic health condition they may be susceptible to.
But regardless of family history, it is important to talk to your child about the risks of using substances.
According to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol use in teenagers can interfere with normal brain development and increase the risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD). Per the CDC, teens who engage in underage drinking are also more likely to have school, social and legal problems, and are more likely to experience physical and sexual violence, and alcohol-related vehicle crashes.
What practices should you teach your kids for substance abuse prevention?
At a young age, it can be hard to have these conversations with children. And most young children are not experiencing the same temptations with alcohol and drugs as older adolescents. Prior to the teen years, spend ample time connecting with your kids. Get into the habit of finding out what’s going on in their lives and teach them to talk to you about any problems or stresses.
In addition, help them learn how to express their emotions and deal with their upsets and angers, teach them problem-solving skills, and help them develop self-control and delayed gratification of rewards. Developing these coping skills will help kids avoid turning to substances to deal with their problems.
Your actions speak louder than your words when it comes to preventing substance abuse
As your children get older, you should talk to them about the risks of using substances, in a concerned manner rather than as a scare tactic. However, the best thing parents can do is lead by example.
Be their role model
Kids look to you as their model for adulthood. Ideally, parents should avoid or limit using substances around children. Don’t talk about the benefits or “joys” of using substances and avoid glorifying “war stories.”
If you do use substances around your children, use responsibly and limit intake. Emphasize that substances should only be used by adults over the age of 21, and that moderation is the key. Watch how the adults around your kids use or speak about substances and ensure they are only exposed to adults who also choose to responsibly use substances in their lives.
Avoid starting early
Don’t be permissive about substance use as kids age. Avoid sending the message that it’s “normal” to try substances underage—the majority of adolescents DO NOT REGULARLY use substances. The longer you prevent or delay your kid from using substances, the lower the risk of future substance-related problems.
Hold protective boundaries
Don’t encourage drinking to “build up tolerance” in preparation for adulthood or going to college. A recent trend among parents has been to encourage drinking prior to going to college so that kids can “handle their liquor” and not get into trouble. This strategy is not protective and actually increases the risk of drinking problems by encouraging binge and heavy drinking.
Your parenting style says a lot about your child’s risk of substance abuse
How you choose to parent and discipline can go a long way in setting your children up for success. Common parenting styles include:
- Authoritarian: High control and discipline, low warmth and responsiveness. This parent says “do what I say.” This style increases the likelihood of a child rebelling—and substance use is a common way to rebel.
- Permissive: Low control and discipline, high warmth and responsiveness. This parent is more focused on being a child’s friend and appeasing them. This style results in a lack of structure—increasing a child’s likelihood of getting into trouble and hanging with the “bad crowd,” resulting in antisocial activities and substance use.
- Authoritative: High control and discipline, high warmth and responsiveness. This parent explains the rules and reasoning for consequences and is paired with love and concern. This style is the most protective and effective parenting approach.
Parents need to support and encourage their children and know what’s going on in their lives, therefore, structure and monitoring are crucial. This means knowing where your child is, who they are spending time with and limiting the amount of time they are unsupervised. As children become teenagers, peers begin to have a greater impact on decision-making and behaviors than parental guidance.
The best thing parents can do is establish a close relationship and open communication at a young age to set them up for success when it comes to substance use as teens and eventually adults.
If you or someone you know needs treatment or assistance for their relationship with alcohol or other substances, you can find help here.