During my son's well visit at Peconic Pediatrics, Dr. Meah asked my ten-year old son if his parents have talked to him about drugs and alcohol. Some parents might be startled or perhaps even offended by this question. As someone who works for a drug and alcohol prevention agency, I wanted to hug my son's doctor. This wasn't a moral question or suspicion of my parenting skills; it was the beginning of an important, ongoing conversation between my son and his healthcare provider about his health.
The reality is that the use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco can have profound, lifelong effects on the health of youth. Regular marijuana use has been linked to cognitive decline, poor attention and memory, diminished IQ and exacerbates underlying mental health issues. Underage drinking puts young people at risk for injury, physical and sexual assault, car accidents, and unprotected sex. Research has shown that teens that begin using alcohol before the age of 15 are seven times more likely to develop alcohol dependence later in life. Youth who experiment with highly addictive prescription drugs often find themselves seeking heroin to satisfy their addiction when the pills inevitably run out.
One might ask "Isn't age 10 a little young to be talking about drugs and alcohol?"
In New York State, one-third of thirteen-year olds have tried alcohol. According to the 2014-2015 New York State OASAS Youth Development Survey, Suffolk County youth who use marijuana report that, on average, they began smoking pot at age fourteen. On a national level, prescription drugs are now the most commonly abused drugs among 12 and 13-year olds according to Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.
Starting the conversation about the risks and consequences of drug and alcohol at a young age is one of the most effective ways to prevent substance abuse. Children between the ages of 9-11 are still emotionally dependent upon their parents. As such, parents are their primary role models and children are more receptive to these types of conversations with their parents. Despite the fact that youth identify more with their peers as they enter the teen years, research shows that throughout adolescence, parents remain the number one influence on their children when children are making decisions about alcohol and drug use.
Drug and alcohol discussions with youth are much like the use of sunscreen. On a hot, sunny day, you wouldn't apply sunscreen once and assume your child is safe for rest of the day because we all know that protecting your child from the sun requires multiple applications of sunblock. Protecting your child from substance abuse requires multiple, ongoing conversations about the dangers of alcohol and drugs, conveying your expectations of them, ways to handle peer pressure and exit strategies if your child is in a situation where they might feel compelled to use alcohol or drugs.
The good news is that there are many resources available to help parents. Your healthcare provider should address substance use during well visits to provide information, to assess if your child is using drugs, alcohol, or tobacco and to make appropriate referrals for treatment, if necessary.
That said, prevention does begin with parents. Talk early and talk often.
For more information and resources, visit RiverheadCAP.org.
Community Prevention Specialist & Mom