The drug talk is a difficult conversation for any parent. It feels virtually impossible when your child is under 10, but parents are increasingly having to make that decision as substance use creeps down the age groups. But that doesn’t mean you have to give your young child the exact same conversation you’d give to a 12 or 14 year old child.
For children trying to wrap their minds around how the world and their body works, it’s important to make sure the conversation is age-appropriate, but not overly simplistic. You may be surprised at how much your child already knows - or you may find that they’re completely ignorant. How you touch on the finer points will come down to parenting decisions and your personal judgment, but there are a few easy guidelines you can follow to make the conversation smoother.
Talk about safe and unsafe drugs
One of the most basic facts you should communicate is that drug is a term for any substance that alters you in some way, which means everything from hardcore, illegal substances to the baby aspirin in your cabinet is a drug. But not all drugs are alike, and it’s important to know the difference between good drugs and bad drugs, as well as necessary and unnecessary drugs.
Explain to your child that drugs affect your body. Sometimes, certain people need specific drugs to make their bodies work, but your child doesn’t need the same drugs to make his body work. Sometimes, your child will experience an ailment or a sickness and need a drug that can make her body work. And some drugs don’t make your body work at all, but stop it from working properly.
Tell them about addiction to both illegal drugs and legal drugs. Explain that sometimes your body will become used to the presence of a drug and will suffer if it’s not there anymore - and if it’s a drug that’s neither legal nor safe to come by, you can risk serious sickness by developing an addiction.
Explaining it this way is simple and straightforward, providing basic information about how substances work while making clear that not all substances are necessary, and some aren’t ever helpful. Framing it as a matter of health, instead of good or bad, legal or illegal, might also keep your child from developing a curiosity in the forbidden. Kids like what they can’t have - but they don’t like feeling sick.
Let them ask questions without judgment
It’s easy to respond to questions like “what’s marijuana” with “something very bad, don’t touch it and don’t talk to any loser who touches it.” It’s also uninformative and unhelpful. Instead, tell your child the basic facts - it’s a drug, it affects your brain and your body, it’s illegal in most cases.
By the way, don’t be afraid to include alcohol in these conversations - it, too, is a drug your kid should learn about early to prevent abuse in the future.
Part of the difficulty children have in talking to their parents about drugs is that parents often interpret questions as personal interest. Be sure to not shame your child or negatively comment on his questions if he comes to you about the subject. By answering honestly and having a frank discussion when it comes up, you teach him that the subject is something he can discuss with you, rather than a forbidden topic that would dissuade him from seeking your help should it ever become a problem.
It’s extremely important to temper this conversation. You don’t necessarily know what level your child is at, and even if they know a little more than you expected, you shouldn’t necessarily be giving them the full run-down on every illegal drug, its nicknames, its uses and the culture around it. Letting them know the harmful side effects, the physiological effects and the relationship it has to things they’ll see in their day to day life gives them context to understand and learn more as they age without presenting too much information. This is never an easy topic for a parent to handle - but it’s a vital one.