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Tips for Parents…

According to the Washington State Healthy Youth survey, the average age when students report drinking alcohol at least monthly is between 13 and 14 years old. This is also when they report first trying marijuana. This startling information highlights the need to talk to your kids early about the risks of using substances while their body and brain are still developing, and to clearly express your family expectations about the use of alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs.

There are many resources available to help parents prepare and initiate discussions about substance use. While there is no one right way to have this discussion, there are some common points that all the resources suggest. The ultimate goal of any conversation with your child is to express to them how much you care about their health, safety, and overall well-being. The following is a general set of pointers. A list of resources will follow.

  1. Educate yourself– Substance use is a health issue that is harmful to a developing brain. Some of the information about the specific risks has been known for a long time, but there is constantly new or updated research coming out. In addition to specific short and long term effects, it may be helpful to read about common reasons young people use substances, the signs of use and misuse of drugs, and resources that might be helpful for your child to get more information. Some of my favorite websites will be listed below.
  2. Prepare for a conversation, not a lecture- It may be helpful to think about this as a team approach, rather than parent versus child. Keep an open mind and be willing to understand the issue from your kid’s point of view. Timing is important when starting the discussion, so pick a time when both of you are calm and relaxed.
  3. Listen non-judgmentally- This is a practice that is often easier said than done, but with time and experience, gets easier. It is helpful to ask open-ended questions (questions that require more than yes, no, or other one-word answers). For instance, you might say, “Tell me more about…” or “What do you think about…”. Reflect back what you hear and check for understanding. You might say, “It seems like your saying… Is that right?” Above all else, listen with empathy and compassion. Try and put yourself in your teens’s shoes, and understand from their perspective.
  4. Avoid blame, threats, and shame. Use ‘I-statements’. For example, instead of saying, “Smoking pot is a stupid choice”, try, “Smoking pot is an unhealthy choice, and that is why I’m concerned”. Recognize the positive efforts they are making, even if they are not fully meeting your expectations. “You are making an effort to improve your grades, and I know you can work even harder”.
  5. Express your expectations. Research shows that youth who know their parents disapprove of using alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs are less likely to use. It is helpful to set clear, realistic expectations for your youth’s behaviors. Establish appropriate consequences and enforce them consistently. If at all possible, involve them in the decision. “It is important to our family that we all stay healthy and safe. One way to do this is to avoid substance use. If we find out you are using drugs, what do you think would be a fair consequence?”
  6. Know you are a role model. Parents are important roles models for their children. Studies indicate that if a parent uses alcohol or other drugs, his or her children are more likely to use as well. There are ways to lessen the likelihood that your child will use. Above all else, try to avoid sending a message that substance use is a good way to cope with problems. Avoid saying. “I had a rotten day. I need a drink.” Instead, model other coping skills, such as going for a walk, listening to music, or talking things over with a spouse, partner, or friend.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges parents face is how to deal with the inevitable “but you drink (or smoke)(or…)” or “didn’t you use when you were a kid?”. You may want to prepare for this ahead of time. Again, there is no one right approach to handling this difficult situation. You might respond with “How does my use affect you? I’m curious because how you are feeling is important to me. “Or “How does knowing that I use pot or drink alcohol make you think differently about your own decision?”

Finally, if you are thinking about your own use of substances and are considering making changes, know there are resources that can help. You can reach out to your doctor, or call another professional who specializes in addiction. There are also websites with more information, such as the Washington Recovery Help Line . You can also access free, confidential support and referrals by calling the Thurston County Crisis Clinic at (360) 586-2800.

It is not easy to have these important conversations, and they might not always go as smoothly as you hope. That’s ok! The more you talk about these issues with your kids, the easier it gets! Remember to express your love and caring about your child’s health, development, and well-being. The rest will come with practice.

Rainier School District (RSD) #307

My name is Chris Chitwood, and I am Rainier School District’s Student Assistance Counselor from True North Student Assistance and Treatment Services. I provide substance abuse education and counseling services for students attending Rainier schools. True North provides substance abuse treatment services for students in Thurston, Mason, Lewis, Pacific, and Grays Harbor counties. Please contact me if you have any questions or concerns. My number is (360) 446-9136.


How to talk to your children about substances:

Make A Difference, Talk to your child about alcohol

Drugs, Drug Abuse, Addiction

Minds Under Construction

Favorite Resources for Teens

Local Resources

  • True North Student Assistance and Treatment Services

Rainier: (360) 446-9136
All other locations: (360)464-6873

  • St Peter’s Chemical Dependency Center (360)456-7575
  • Thurston County Crisis Clinic (360) 586-2800

Chris Chitwood

Chris is the Student Assistance Counselor for the Rainier School District

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