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Drug & alcohol talk: Early & often

When his 15-year-old son announced after dinner one night that he wished to start drinking, J. David Hawkins peppered him with reasons underage drinking is dangerous — and when that didn’t work, he made him a deal:

If his soon-to-be-driving son promised to refrain from alcohol for the next year, he wouldn’t have to pay the additional $1,000 insurance premium the family would be charged for a new driver. The teenager agreed.

"It’s a $1,000 bribe, but for me that’s 365 days of not worrying about my son drinking," said Hawkins, founding director of the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington.


  • 14.7 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 drank alcohol in the last month; 8.8 percent reported binge drinking.

  • 11.6 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 used tobacco.

  • 10 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 used illicit drugs in the last month, up from 9.3 percent in 2008. Most used marijuana (7.3 percent), followed by prescription drugs (3.1 percent), inhalants (1 percent), hallucinogens (0.9 percent) and cocaine (0.3 percent)

SOURCE: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Steering kids away from drugs and alcohol is an imperfect science, and parents — the experts included — do what they have to do to contend with a youth culture saturated with substance use.

This time of year, with proms and graduation parties in the works, the subject is going to come up.

By the time kids graduate from high school, 71 percent of them have consumed alcohol, 54 percent have gotten drunk at least once, 48 percent have tried illegal drugs and 25 percent have tried illegal drugs other than marijuana, according to the 2010 Monitoring the Future survey, an annual survey of some 50,000 American teens conducted by the University of Michigan.

What can be done?

The best thing parents can do, experts say, is try to delay a kid’s initiation of substance use for as long as possible, as kids who start younger are more likely to have problems later in life.

But as much as parents want to be "the anti-drug," as media campaigns encourage, the tricky part is doing it effectively, without alienating their kids.

The prevailing wisdom is to have conversations early and often.

"What you don’t want is to be having this conversation after your child has already started drinking or smoking marijuana," Hawkins said. "You want to be in there giving the first message about drugs."

In Hawkins’ case, his family participated in a program he helped develop called "Guiding Good Choices," a series of five two-hour workshops held at his son’s middle school.

Here’s roughly what the workshop teaches:

Lay the groundwor

k for healthy communication by involving your kids actively in family activities, such as daily meals together and vacation planning, to strengthen family bonds and set the ground rules for respectful conversations.

The drug talk itself

should happen early in the child’s adolescence, fifth or sixth grade, before most kids have been exposed to drug pressures. To increase motivation, do it after something fun.

Talk about people you know

in your family who have drinking or drug problems, and how that affects them. Explain how substance use could get in the way of the wishes you both want for your child. Then set a clear, straightforward family policy on drugs and alcohol.

Establish what the consequences

would be of not abiding by the standards, and the incentives you’re providing for your kids to stay away from substances. Incentives are crucial, Hawkins said, because you’re asking your kid to give up something many of his or her friends might be enjoying.

Agree to have the conversation

every year to make sure everyone is still on board, Hawkins said. As the kid gets older, other topics might arise, such as how to decline a friend’s offer of drugs or booze while still keeping that friend and having a good time.