Protecting Children from Drugs, Alcohol, and Chemicals

As parents, we all want to believe that our children will escape childhood and enter into their adult years without even encountering drugs let alone using them. But the truth is that as early as the elementary age years, children will have some type of proximity to substances of some kind in their community environments, and in their teenage years, they will almost certainly have exposure to drugs being used by peers and friends. Parents need to have a basic awareness and knowledge of common street drugs as well as household drugs so that they can educate their children on how best to manage situations where they come into contact with drugs. In this lesson, we will discuss common household and street drugs as well as alcohol and chemicals, and how to recognize red flags for signs of substance use and abuse. By starting the conversation early with their children about how to respond to substances in their environment, parents can utilize the opportunity to coach their children in decision making according to family values, as well as build trust for future real life scenarios in which the teen encounters drugs and alcohol outside of adult supervision and needs to call on their parent or other trusted adult for help.

common household drugs - drugs that may typically be found in the home environment that may be tempting for children and teens to use or even abuse include benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium, sleep support medicines like Ambien, painkillers and opioids, stimulants and amphetamines, also known as "bennies" or "speed," dextromethorphan in cough medicine, and pseudoephedrine, also marketed as Sudafed. Other chemical items in the home may also be used inappropriately by children who do not know better, for example, a very young child may find a bottle of cleaner in a lower cabinet and try to drink it if unsupervised. Sometimes, older children and teens may use household items unsafely in an unexpected manner. An example of this is the "tide pod challenge" in which children and teens were eating plastic single-use pods of laundry detergent and posting on social media about their participation in the tide pod challenge. In addition to watching for some of the more typical signs of drug use and abuse in their children including disinterest in normally preferred activities, tiredness, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, confusion or disorientation, and extreme irritability, parents should also be prepared for unexpected situations where there are no outward "classic" symptoms. And, of course, parents should always keep chemicals and both prescription and over the counter drugs stored in high cabinets that lock if possible. It also may be better for a parent with a prescription drug used on a daily basis to keep the container of pills on their person or in their daily backpack, bag, or purse rather than leaving them at home in a cabinet, especially if there is any established history of intentional drug use and abuse with the child or teen.

common street drugs - In elementary school, it's possible that young children may encounter common street drugs like packaged marijuana in candy or edible form in addition to its familiar forms of little baggies or pre-rolled joints, or used heroine needles left behind by users in public parks or even on the school playground. For this reason, it's important for parents to talk to their children early and often about what to do if they see something unfamiliar like this, such as do not touch the item and find a trusted adult to let them know immediately. It's very important to emphasize the importance of not tasting or ingesting anything that is found even if it looks like candy or if they are encouraged by a peer to do so. Many parents trust that their children know what to do in situations like this and/or would not attempt to taste or eat anything unfamiliar or unsanctioned by a parent or teacher but it is still important to have these conversations often so children feel confident in what to do.

For teens, it becomes more common to encounter drugs offered by peers or older attendees of parties. Other common street drugs include MDMA or ecstasy, often referred to as "Molly" that comes in small round pill size; cocaine that is a fine white powder arranged in thin lines and inhaled through the nasal passage; benzodiazepines (depressant) and amphetamines (stimulant) as discussed above as well as barbiturates (depressant) and methamphetamines (stimulant), LSD (hallucinogen), and psilocybin, also a hallucinogen commonly referred to as "shrooms." There are many more street drugs in addition to these, so it is important for parents to educate themselves continuously so that they can have informed discussions with their children and teens.

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Perhaps the most prevalent addictive substance that children and teens will encounter is nicotine in the form of cigarettes. Cigarettes often carry less of a stigma or "scare factor" for teens than other drugs due to the fact that while almost all other drugs are illegal with no exceptions, cigarettes are legal for persons over the age of 18. This means it is critical that parents discuss cigarettes as intentionally as they discuss other drugs, illustrating the extremely addictive qualities of nicotine as well as the damaging impact to the body and the increased risk of disease and cancer later in life. If there are smokers in the home, the best case scenario is that those people quit smoking. However, if this is not possible, contact with secondhand smoke should be minimized as much as possible by ensuring all smoking happens outside the property of the home or outside the grounds of the apartment building and that smokers change clothes and shower after having a cigarette, as well as launder their clothing separately from the clothing belonging to the rest of the household. It's also important that children in the home be encouraged to discuss their feelings and opinions related to smoking freely and openly regardless of whether or not there is a smoker in the home. Parents or other caregivers who smoke should be prepared for the child to express emotions related directly to the parent's or caregiver's personal smoking habits as well.

Another potentially tricky subject for families to handle discussing with their children is the use and possible abuse of alcohol. Because alcohol is legal for consumption after the age of 21 is reached, it also may carry less of a stigma and be less associated with fear of harm by children and teens than common street drugs. Alcohol is also fairly accessible for teens and many teens will have already consumed more than a negligible amount of alcohol by the time they graduate high school. Teens will wish to conceal any drinking behavior from parents. If they are not comfortable talking with parents about the potential of alcohol consumption either by themself or by their friends at parties or other unsupervised events, it is very important that parents ensure they have access to other trusted adults with whom they can talk about these things and who share the values of the family unit enough to provide advice and guidance consistent with those values. It's also important to be aware of potential red flags that may come up in conversation with teens that are indicative of something going on where parents may need to seek intervention on behalf of their child or a child's friend, for example, if the child begins talking about a friend who was in a room alone with someone else for a long time but didn't remember what happened the next day and said it was just because they were drunk.

Parents can provide their children with a robust foundation to be able to resist peer pressure situations to use drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes by taking an active role in building the child's array of interests and activities from a young age. For young children, this may look like enrolling them in sports or drama classes so that they begin building a skill that will provide them with a creative outlet and healthy place to use their energy as well as a community of peers who are relating to each other around a common project or goal rather than utilizing drugs or alcohol to find common ground. For older children, this may look like coaching them on how to take an active role in structuring their educational experience by choosing elective classes when possible, participating in student government and after school clubs, obtaining a work study position or an after school job, or otherwise participating in activities beyond their course schedule that will build additional accountability into their lives. This will also encourage the teen to begin envisioning what their life will look like when they have graduated high school and are attending college, a trade school, working, traveling, or continuing to build their life experience in some other way. As they begin to build a sense of who they will be as an adult in the "practice" arena of the high school years, they will be empowered to make more in-the-moment decisions with a lens of how those decisions will impact their long term goals.

conversations according to family values - Parents should always ground family meetings and discussions around the above topics in overall family values. Because every family will approach education around drugs, alcohol, chemicals, and cigarettes slightly differently, it's important to build a strong sense of the "why" for children in relation to their family unit, as well as in terms of their relationship to society at large. This includes talking about the impact of behaviors, such as drug or alcohol use and abuse on family members directly. For example, parents may discuss what happens when alcohol is abused in terms of the immediate danger to the safety of people closest to the person abusing alcohol, as well as the emotional impacts on the people who are not capable of removing themselves from a situation with an inebriated person in the home, such as young children. Parents should also set up situations where actively engaging in positive behaviors will result in preferred activities for the individual and for the family. For example, if parents have planned a family meeting where drugs and alcohol and their potential abuse is going to be discussed in depth as a manner of preventative education, they should plan this in a way that includes a fun, light-hearted family activity afterward that is not covering difficult topics, such as bowling or playing a board game, or a family movie night. By structuring difficult conversations in this way, families increase the likelihood that their children will continue to participate in such discussions and benefit from them. They also increase the likelihood that at some point the child will begin to initiate these conversations either when they have questions about something in particular or when something potentially serious is happening and they need the involvement of a parent or trusted adult.

It can be daunting for parents to think about the dangers of drugs and alcohol when their children are very young, but it is best to start the above process of educating themselves and beginning a lifelong conversation with their children as early as possible. This will set healthy patterns in place of applying family values when difficult situations occur. However, it is never too late for parents to begin utilizing the above strategies to encourage healthy choices and safe behavior in their children and teens. Even for teens who are already driving and not spending as much time in the parents' home, these kinds of conversations can be critical to their development as they move from adolescence into young adulthood. Teens may not always demonstrate obvious behavior showing that they need adult support, but they are also very vulnerable and can benefit greatly from a parent's thoughtful involvement. As always, if parents have concerns about their child's or teen's potential drug or alcohol use, they should not hesitate to seek medical and otherwise professional help and care.