How To Keep Your Grandkids Off Drugs

If it's time to have "the talk" with your grandchildren about drug abuse, don't put it off

By Laura Broadwell

The tween and teen years can be tumultuous for many kids. As they become more interested in spending time with friends, and less interested in sharing their thoughts with parents or grandparents, it's only natural to worry if they might be experimenting with drugs or alcohol. You may want to say something to them — to warn them of the dangers of drugs, or to urge them to resist peer pressure — but if they're maintaining their distance, it can seem hard to approach them.

Don't let that stop you. By many accounts, parents and grandparents are gaining ground in the battle to keep kids off drugs. In recent years, the use of marijuana and other illegal "street" drugs has fallen slightly among teens, according to research funded by The National Institute on Drug Abuse. And a new survey conducted for The Partnership for a Drug-Free America shows that children are half as likely to become involved with drugs and alcohol if they learn about the risks from their parents and other caring adults.

In other words, even if your grandkids aren't talking, they're listening. Here are five steps for delivering your drug-free message to them:

1. Educate yourself. The use of "street" drugs may be declining among young people, but marijuana and cocaine are far from the only risks kids face. Increasingly, children as young as 12 have turned to prescription drugs to get high. They can readily find these drugs in many home medicine cabinets (including yours) or buy them through online pharmacies. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America reports that one in five teens has abused a prescription pain medication, such as Vicodin, and one in ten has abused a prescription stimulant, such as Ritalin. Teens have also abused over-the-counter medications, such as cough medicines with the ingredient DXM (commonly found in Robitussin).

"Huffing," or attempting to get high by inhaling household products such as air freshener, nail polish remover, spray paint, and glue, also continues to be a risk for kids. According to a recent report by The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, one in five children will abuse such inhalants by the eighth grade.

You'll gain credibility with your grandchildren if you know as much about what's out there as they do, so before you sit down to talk with them, learn all you can about the most recent trends and facts. The following groups' websites can help you: The Partnership for a Drug-Free America; The National Institute on Drug Abuse; Parents: The Anti-Drug; and, for information on inhalants, The Alliance for Consumer Education.

2. Start early. Tweens and teens often fall into drug addiction because they’re unaware of the dangers. For example, they may think that prescription drugs aren’t nearly as harmful as marijuana or cocaine, says Tom Hedrick, senior communications officer at The Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Or they may be totally unaware of the addictive, sometimes lethal effects of inhalants. That’s why Hedrick believes it’s important to start educating kids about all types of drugs before they enter middle school. If your grandkids are in their last year of elementary school and no one has sat them down to talk about drugs, it's time.

3. Look for "teachable" moments. One way to begin a discussion with young people is to bring up an incident that occurred in their community or in the news. For example, you might talk about a local high-school student who was expelled for taking drugs, or about a celebrity or athlete who entered rehab because of an addiction. "Ask your grandchild, ‘What do you think about this situation?’ and listen closely for his answer," says clinical psychologist Lisa Boesky of San Diego, the author of When to Worry: How to Tell If Your Teen Needs Help — and What to Do About It (Amacom, 2007). As you talk, explain what you know about the health and safety risks associated with drug use, and express your opinions clearly. "Tell your grandchild that you would be disappointed if he took drugs because you love him so much," Boesky says, "and explain how drugs can get in the way of his personal, athletic, or academic goals."

4. Don't stop talking. Continue your conversations about drugs throughout the preteen and teen years. Check in with your grandchildren in middle school, by asking in a calm, nonjudgmental way, "Do you know anybody who has taken drugs?" or, "Has anyone ever offered you drugs? What would you do if someone did?” Take the opportunity to help your grandchild come up with his or her own strategies for resisting peer pressure — and ultimately saying no to drugs — while still fitting in with friends, Boesky says. In high school, you might ask some of the same questions, while being especially attentive to any rough patches in your grandchild’s life, either personally or within their immediate family. Teens may be more susceptible to experimenting with drugs during emotionally difficult times, Hedrick says.

5. Never underestimate your influence. In February 2002, Janna Zuber's 16-year-old son, Justin, died from inhaling air freshener. Today the 56-year-old mother of five and grandmother of two in Mitchellville, Md., has become an advocate for inhalant awareness. "So often, children — even good kids — think they're invincible, and try drugs out of curiosity," Zuber says. "They don’t know about the real risks, because no one told them." Grandparents can and should can step up and play an important role by educating their grandchildren about drugs, being there for kids during tough times, and always keeping the lines of communication open.

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