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Talking to your Preteen About Drugs

QUESTION: I want to educate my middle school children about avoiding drugs. Is it too early?

ANSWER: It is never too early for drug prevention. Even primary grade children benefit from learning to keep their bodies healthy. Teaching respect for our bodies at an early age is a protection against later drug abuse. Public school polls reported that two-thirds of fourth graders wished their parents would talk more to them about drugs!

Generally, when children leave primary grades, they enter a larger, less protected school environment. Preteens are gradually growing more independent, a process which continues through adolescence. Toward the end of this period, children begin to make conscious decisions about their lives. This is a critical time to develop the ability to make healthy and informed decisions about their future.

Children are very vulnerable at this age. Those with low self-esteem, problems at home and low academic performance in school are most likely to begin early experimentation with drugs. They can become easy prey to the lure of selling or using drugs. Early experimentation, before the age of 15, is correlated with later drug addiction.

At this age of development, kids are fascinated with how things work. They want to know how their bodies operate. They are curious about what happens to their bodies when drugs are ingested. Give them the facts about drug use. Explain how anything taken to excess -- even aspirin -- can be dangerous.

Talk to your preteens about the ways that drugs and alcohol are promoted in the media. Use opportunities that arise, such as song lyrics, television shows or advertising that suggests drugs, tobacco and alcohol are glamorous. For example, the generalized use of alcohol in many television dramas (Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal and others) portray professionals drinking routinely as a ritualized ending to a workday.

Point these subliminal messages out to them and separate myth from reality. Emphasize decision making, legality and alternative ways to relax and unwind. Look at your own styles of coping and be willing to talk about these, too! If you have a beer or two every evening, be willing to examine the issue. Are there other ways to unwind?

Point out that alcohol and tobacco use are illegal for children to protect their developing bodies. Use of alcohol and tobacco will be a choice reserved for when they become adults.

Making a difference

The number one reason children give for not taking drugs is that a caring adult will object! Children who have positive and strong connections with a caretaker (parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or mentor) do not want to jeopardize that relationship.

Given a strong relationship with your child, the following points will help protect your child from drug abuse:

  1. Help your child deal with peer pressure: Be willing to listen and talk about their needs to belong and fit in. Help them rehearse strategies for saying "no" or walking away from others at school who may be pressuring them to experiment with drugs, alcohol or tobacco.

  2. Help your child build positive social relationships: Friendships are very important to children at this age. Stay connected to their social lives. Know their friends. If your child's friends use drugs, it is highly likely that your child will use, too. Be aware of unsupervised situations. Help your child resist friendships that are not in his or her best interest and develop activities and friendships that are.

  3. Help your child deal with disappointments and improve coping skills: Talk with your child about sad and angry feelings that arise due to things that are not working out in life. Work to help them deal with frustration and rejection in a positive, rather than self-destructive, manner. Point out the difference between constructive versus destructive coping. Support areas where they can build on experiences of success.

  4. Help your child build self-esteem: Some form of academic and social success are critical. Help your child succeed at school. Address learning problems or difficulties with a teacher and work out a program of study that will assure they meet realistic goals. Find extracurricular activities that give your child a sense of accomplishment and acceptance in a group. For example, swimming, karate, girl scouts or other activities. These areas can buffer social rejections they may experience at school.

  5. Identify activities that help them relax and feel good: Music, art or sports activities can help a child let off steam. Help your kids develop healthy outlets to release pressure. Point out that leisure activities are ways to cope with stress. Help them identify how they can feel good in a healthy way.

  6. Honest and open discussions about drugs: Get informed! Learn facts about drugs through school programs your child is attending or other sources. Let your kids know they can come to you for help and information.
If your child does make a mistake, help him or her get back on track. Do not condemn them for their behavior. Instead, condemn the behavior and continue to believe in them. Remember, you are your child's strongest ally against drugs!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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