Column: Talking to kids about drugs crucial in parenting

Special to The Herald

April 21 is National Talk to Your Kids About Drugs Day. In anticipation of that, I spoke with about a dozen high-schoolers for tips on how parents could have a conversation with them on this topic that they wouldn’t automatically tune out.

The teens’ responses mirror tips that can be found on websites of drug and alcohol abuse, mental health and parenting organizations, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Mothers Against Destructive Decisions and Parent Tool Kit. To learn more from the official sources, just type “How to start a conversation with your child about alcohol” — or something similar — into your search engine and go. To hear the advice in your children’s own words, keep reading here.

The first thing you as parents should know is that you cannot delegate this conversation to someone else.

Parents who do not address drug and alcohol abuse with their children send the message, intentionally or not, that it is OK. Studies show that the biggest influence on whether a child is going to use alcohol or drugs is the child’s parents. According to SAMHSA, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 80 percent of youth ages 10 to 18 say their parents are the leading factor in their decision whether to drink.

So when parents don’t talk about it, according to a local teen, “(I feel like) it’s a very minor thing to them compared to what we could be doing.”

“They just brush it off because it’s not the worst thing that’s out there,” another said.

Every year students across the state in grades six through 12 are asked to participate in the Indiana Youth Survey tabulated by the Indiana Prevention Resource Center. According to the 2017-18 results, 3.5% of Dubois County sixth-graders who completed the survey acknowledged using alcohol at least monthly. That number went up gradually — 5.7% of seventh-graders, 10.5% of eighth-graders, 13% of ninth-graders, 16.9% of 10th-graders, 21.8% of 11th-graders — until by 12th grade, 34.3% of Dubois County students who took the survey reported monthly use of alcohol, exceeding the state average of 29.5%.

Another area of drug and alcohol use that gets high marks — and not the good kind — among Dubois County students is the use of electronic vapor products. Reported local use of e-cigarettes and similar devices started at 3.4% among seventh-graders, jumped to double digits in the eighth grade and continued rising at each grade level until it exceeded the state average for both 11th-graders and 12th-graders. Slightly more than 24% of county 11th-graders reported vaping, higher than the state average of 23.7%. Among county 12th-graders, vaping was reported at 34%, more than the state average of 28.6%.

“They just give up, I guess,” one student surmised about parents not addressing the specific topic of vaping. “They get tired of not winning,” added another. “Some don’t care enough” to learn about it and talk about it, said another.

While it is important that children hear from their parents about drugs, it doesn’t hurt to get reinforcement from other trusted adults in a child’s life. Some students said they would be more likely to listen to other relatives and coaches than their parents on the topic. “I don’t think my aunts and uncles are as annoying as my parents are ... I would take them more seriously,” a senior said.

Another student said that if her parents would talk to her in a calm tone of voice and share information rather than accusations, she would listen to them. In other words, your teens want a conversation, not a lecture.

“One thing that parents do, they automatically accuse us,” a senior said. “Depending on who we hang out with, they just automatically accuse that we’re doing drugs.”

“They instantly are furious and they instantly start spitting their minds,” added another, citing her parents shouting: “This is terrible! I am so angry right now!”

“Their approach is too aggressive,” someone else said. If the parent is mad and frustrated about a child’s drinking alcohol or using e-cigarettes, “the key point is no longer the alcohol or the vaping; the point is that the parent is mad.”

“I’d rather they be sad about it than mad about it,” a girl in the group offered. When her parents are angry, she said, she tunes out. “With sad, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, what have I done?’”

SAMHSA recommends parents make it clear that they care about the child’s health, wellness and success. Your children, too, said they want to know you are talking to them out of concern for their health and safety. Nagging, statements that leave no room for discussion — alcohol is bad for you, period — and scare tactics aren’t effective, they said.

If parents express the health consequences as well as the legal ones of using alcohol or drugs as minors, “I am more likely to listen,” one student said.

Various websites, pamphlets and books outline the effects of alcohol and drugs on a brain not fully developed and the risks associated with substance abuse. A quick look can prepare you to make a fact-based case.

Experts recommend that conversations with teens about drugs be in small, age-appropriate conversations, not diatribes when trouble arises. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Talk to Your Child About Alcohol program encourages talks about the dangers of drinking and driving, for example, before, during and after a teen gets his or her driver’s license.

If you think it is up to the school to educate your children about drugs and alcohol, consider this:

“When kids are at school, with their friends, they’re not going to care no matter what the people say to them,” an upperclassman said. Added another: “I feel like presentations within the high school are a lot less personal. If you get the entire student body in a room, people will laugh it off, have side conversations about it.”

If you are a parent who used drugs and/or alcohol when you were a teen and feel hypocritical telling your teen not to, realize that your role has changed. In the words of an area school social worker who also has children: “Now you’re the parent. You have to say no.”

Just be honest. Don’t catch yourself saying one thing while having done another. The group suggests wording such as, “Yes, I drank at your age — and wish I hadn’t. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have.”

Now that you are starting to get a handle on the conversation, let’s talk about when to have it.

Indiana Youth Survey results showed Dubois County sixth-graders reporting use of cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs. Our seventh-graders reported using those as well as smokeless tobacco, pipes, e-cigarettes, inhalants and over-the-counter drugs; they also reported binge drinking. By the eighth grade, cigars, synthetic marijuana, cocaine/crack, methamphetamines, heroin and hallucinogens/ecstasy had joined the mix.

So don’t wait until your child is in high school to talk to him or her about drug and alcohol risks. The high-schoolers I spoke with said the conversations definitely should start by the time a child transitions from elementary school to an intermediate or middle school with older kids who might exert peer pressure.

“Getting into middle school, you start hanging out with people that are older than you and doing stupid stuff,” one student said.

“Definitely let the kids be aware of what (they could face), especially in elementary school right before they go into middle school, just so they’re not exposed to it all at once,” another student said.

One student said she doesn’t think peer pressure at her high school is bad. “Everyone I’ve been around is respectful,” she said.

But then another student from the same school said that because of the popularity of e-cigarettes and alcohol there, he has heard some of the “good kids” — he described them as A students and student leaders — say they would like to try it sometime. “It’s almost like we (upperclassmen) recruit underclassmen to do it,” he added. “Freshmen are very susceptible to that. They’re new. They want to fit in.”

Those two students said they have seen an increase in substance use among freshmen at their school since the school year started. They inadvertently provided another topic for one of those regular parent-child conversations when they suggested that parents tell their children: “It’s OK not to fit in right away. You’re going to make friends regardless. You’ve got to find that right group.”

The students agreed that instilling self-confidence in your children can go a long way in helping them through peer pressure related to drinking and drugs.

“Some people have a strong way to say no to things they don’t want to do,” someone commented. Then someone pointed out to a friend that she isn’t that type of person. In fact, the friend said, “(You are) very easily persuaded.”

“That’s why I don’t go to parties,” she replied.

As part of its “Talk. They Hear You.” Campaign, SAMHSA advises parents to help their children have a plan in place for facing peer pressure. Two suggestions are role-playing how a teen would say no thanks and deciding on a code word that a teen in need of rescuing would text to a family member.

One boy said his confidence in saying no to drugs comes from the damage he has seen drug abuse inflict on loved ones. “I just know a lot of the consequences that come with drug use. There are a lot of people in my family that are addicted to that. I’ve seen it firsthand what can happen,” he said.

Another student brought the conversation back to the parents’ role.

“Your parents teaching you right from wrong from the beginning, it helps you instill your own values. So when you get out in that situation, you’ve made the decision for yourself ahead of time: ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’

“You have your parents’ voice in your mind, kind of, and then instill your own (principles).”

Martha Rasche is a member of the Dubois County Public Health Partnership Mental Health Committee and the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. With funding from the health partnership, she writes about topics related to mental health. Read her blogs at Email her at


Mental Health First Aid

The Dubois County Public Health Partnership is sponsoring Mental Health First Aid training. The course teaches adults how to help someone who may be experiencing a mental health or addictions challenge.

Classes are scheduled for 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 1, July 25, Sept. 18 and Nov. 14 in the Memorial Hospital Medical Arts Conference Room, at 721 W. 13th St., Jasper.

Lunch will be provided.

The cost of the eight-hour training is $35 per person. The money is reinvested in the program to pay for the manuals participants receive, other supplies and instructor training.

To register, visit and follow the link to the registration box. For more information, email or call Dubois County Health Department Administrative Director Jo Ann Spaulding at 812-481-7050.

More on