Dr. Nora D. Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse encourages parents to take the Drug IQ Test this week. She was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about talking to kids about drugs and keeping them safe and healthy!
PS: How can parents know when it is the right time to talk to their kids about drugs?
NV: The time to start is when they are young — in their pre- or early teen years. That is a time when drug use often starts; it is a time when peers begin exerting a stronger influence; and it is a time when the brain is rapidly developing. Our research tells us that those who begin drug use at a young age are the most vulnerable to consequent adverse effects — not just because of negative effects on school performance, social and emotional development, and family relationships, but also because early drug use is a marker of addiction, vulnerability, and other mental health problems. In fact, drug use can signal other mental problems and be a form of self-medication for them, which is not only counter-productive, but may also mask symptoms that require professional treatment.
Parents should also bear in mind that young people tend to abuse whatever is available. That is why inhalants, found in many household and office products (e.g., glues, whipped cream canisters, lighter fluid), prescription drugs (left in the medicine cabinet), tobacco, and alcohol are among the first drugs abused by kids. Talking to kids early could help them understand what they may be getting themselves into and can prepare them to resist peer pressure. Discussing refusal skills and even practicing them can build your child's confidence and ready him or her for responding to situations in which they are exposed to drugs.
PS: Is it important for parents to necessarily be the first one to talk to a child about drugs?
NV: Not necessarily — but you do want to make sure that they are getting accurate information upon which to base their decisions, and we know from research that children listen to their parents even when it seems like they are trying to do the opposite. Parents have a strong influence over their children's behavior and can set limits as to what is and is not acceptable. Youth report not using drugs because they are concerned about what their parents will think — so it is important for parents to set clear guidelines and to be good role models for their kids, also being open to discussing topics that may be difficult or sensitive.
PS: Where can parents get informed about the latest drug trends out there?
NV: There are a number of good sources — among them, NIDA's Monitoring the Future Survey, which measures drug, alcohol, cigarette, and prescription drug abuse; and related attitudes among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders nationwide. This survey has been in existence since 1975, revealing trends across many different drugs and the perceptions related to them. Also on NIDA's website is information designed not just for parents and teachers, but specifically for teens, including the Sara Bellum Blog, where teens can get the facts about drugs and drug abuse, and let us know what they are thinking.
PS: How can parents who have experimented with drugs themselves be honest without condoning experimentation?
NV: Children really do look to their parents for help and guidance in working out problems and in making decisions, including the decision not to use drugs. Even if you have used drugs in the past, you can have an open conversation about the dangers. Divulging past drug use is an individual decision, but having used drugs should not prevent you from talking to your child — in fact, experience may better equip you to communicate with your child by drawing on the value of mistakes made or knowledge gained since then.
PS: What can parents do if their kids are not talking them and they fear the children may be exposed or soon-to-be exposed to drugs?
NV: You might try talking to other people who know your children, such as their friends or other adults in their lives, and express your concern. It is important to stay involved, even when your kids seem resistant. Also, continue to talk openly to them, even if they're not talking back, since you never know when something you say might be valuable to them at a later time. Be very specific about your expectations when it comes to drug use — for example, make sure your kids know that drinking or doing drugs and driving, or getting into a car with someone who's been drinking or doing drugs will not be tolerated. Underage drinking and driving is a growing problem in this country, and drugged driving is also a concern, with marijuana the most commonly identified illicit drug in fatal accidents (about 14 percent of drivers), sometimes in combination with alcohol or other drugs.
We all thank Dr. Volkow for expert opinion, and challenge you to take the Drug IQ Test for yourself!