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How to 'inoculate' kids against addiction, from an early age

How to talk to kids about drugs and alcohol in a way that helps them avoid the traps of addiction later on.

I got sober when my kids were 8 and 13, and substance abuse has been a regular part of our family conversations ever since. It’s had to be; substance abuse runs in my family, so my kids have a genetic predisposition for it. According to the research, I started a little too late, as the most effective substance abuse prevention programs start early in childhood.

Preschool: Teach healthy choices

Parenting for substance abuse prevention should begin in preschool, and starts with knowledge about general health topics and building healthy behaviors such as washing hands, brushing teeth, eating nutritious food, and getting enough exercise. Set clear family expectations around healthy behaviors, such as “We brush our teeth after every meal,” or “We don’t take medicines that are not prescribed for us.”

Little kids have short attention spans, so keep explanations short, and don’t be offended if their attention drifts. From a cognitive perspective, kids aged 4 to 6 love to practice their emerging abilities to count, sort, estimate, and identify numbers and letters, so use that enthusiasm. They learn best through stories, movement, rhythms, melodies, and patterns, and there are lots of great ways to incorporate these teaching methods into lessons about healthy choices.

Courtesy HarperCollins

These lessons can be fun! Make up stores about the bacteria that live between their teeth and turn the sugar from that after-school snack into acids that make cavities in order to talk about why we brush our teeth—that it’s not just because we want them to be clean and shiny but because strong, healthy teeth will help us to chew our food into tiny pieces and keep our bodies healthy. Suggest inappropriate and silly ways to use household products such as toothpaste, soap, and shampoo in order to help kids learn that they can make us sick if we use them incorrectly. For example, “What would happen if I put this shampoo in my mouth instead of on my hair?” or “Why don’t we just swallow the toothpaste instead of spitting it out?”

If they know their letters or numbers, ask them to find the letters of their name or the first letter of your name on the label of any prescription drugs you take. “Wait, before I take this, can you find the first letter of Mommy’s name on the label?” is a great way to teach kids not only that you have a name beyond your parent nicknames, but how to spell it. They can also help locate other information they may need to know in case of an emergency, such as the spelling of their last name.

As kids begin to notice unhealthy behaviors in others, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, eating a lot of sugar, not eating vegetables, or drinking too much soda, talk about it. Take the opportunity to talk about why people may make unhealthy choices and how your child can make healthy decisions based on what their bodies need. One study found that children as young as 3 are able to recognize alcoholic beverages and differentiate them from other drinks, so they need to hear that kids should not drink alcohol because it harms their brains and bodies.

Elementary school: Real-world learning

As kids move on to elementary school and their understanding of human biology deepens, so, too, can your lessons about healthy behaviors. Attention spans lengthen and they will begin to hear about topics related to health and safety on the news, stories that can begin to feed your discussions. The more we can anchor these discussions in real-world scenarios, the more relevant the lessons will be.

Kids see an average of 23 instances of alcohol advertising in the media every month. One study found alcohol played some role in the plot of one out of every 11 cartoons and appeared in that cartoon an average of three times. Multiple studies conducted over a few different years found between 52 and 57% of popular contemporary G/PG movies depict alcohol use. Use these exposures as an opportunity to talk about fictional characters’ behavior. Compare healthy drinking habits to unhealthy ones. You could say, “That character seemed to have a drink every time he was sad. What are some other ways he could have dealt with those feelings?”

What is inoculation messaging?

Early elementary school is also a great time to start using what’s called “inoculation messaging” to help protect kids from threats to their health and safety. The inoculation theory of communication takes its name from the science of vaccines, which work by introducing a weakened version of a virus in order to confer protection against the real thing. The measles vaccine, for example, is a weakened version of the virus that teaches the human immune system how to mount a defense against the more potent live virus. The inoculation theory of communication as it relates to protecting kids from substance abuse goes a little like this: if we arm kids with a counterargument against reasons they should use alcohol or drugs (“Come on, it’s no big deal,” or “Come on, everyone does it”), it will shore up their defenses against a real-life, more potent version.

Inoculation theory has been shown to be a powerful tool in protecting kids against all kinds of risky behaviors, including smoking, binge drinking, and unprotected sex. In fact, one study found that inoculation messaging can confer so-called cross protection; messages meant to protect college students against one risky behavior (binge drinking) effectively protected them against other risky behaviors (unprotected sex) not mentioned in the messaging.

Start inoculating in elementary school by talking through scenarios kids might encounter. What might you say if your friend Amy wants you to go up on the highest monkey bars, where you don’t feel safe yet? What if she won’t take no for an answer and tells you that you are the only kid who isn’t brave enough to use the monkey bars? Talk through valid counterarguments your child can make in this situation and help her feel comfortable making them — she’s likely not the only kid nervous about the monkey bars, and even if she is, it is her right to make decisions about what she does with her body and her safety.

As she gets older, segue into more mature topics, such as, “What would you do if someone brought a pill into school and offered it to you? What would you say? What if they said it wasn’t bad for you?” Offer information on the danger of taking other people’s prescriptions, on the harm drugs can do to their developing brain. They could get sick and even die if they take medications intended for someone else.

Finally, help them understand that their health and safety is more important than what other people think about them. I have told my children that one of the most important things I do for my sobriety is give myself permission to leave a place where I don’t feel safe, even if I’m worried I might offend someone or make them angry. I can always apologize and explain after, but I have never had a friend get mad at me when I explained that I left because I did not feel safe. Our real friends want us to be safe and healthy.

Conversations about substance abuse can be scary for parents and kids alike, but when we start early with the easy topics and allow the talk to mature along with our kids, we stand a much better chance of raising kids healthy, happy, and substance-free.

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