He may be trained as a neuroscientist, but Ruben Baler would make an awesome family counselor, too.
With his down to earth manner and engaging Argentine accent, the health science administrator for the Maryland-based National Institute on Drug Abuse has a gift for not only interacting with parents, but also getting his point across about the dangers of illegal drugs to the school-aged crowd. He does this in a number of ways, including live presentations, web chats, and yes, even a YouTube video that features him pumping iron while discussing the risk of steroid use.
Still, Baler and other experts are aware that all the explanations in the world can’t match the impact a parent has on a child. After all, parents are the “anti-drug” in the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, an initiative launched in 1998 by U.S. Congress to prevent and reduce youth drug use.
His advice for parents who want to raise a child who can rise above drugs is simple: Get to know your kids. Is your son a risk taker? Is your daughter bored at school? Does he love to cook? Is she great at math?
“The best ‘vaccine’ I’ve found in talking to kids and parents is identifying a passion as early as possible,” says Baler, himself a father of two. “You really want them to develop their passion and fly.”
The truth is, no one can guarantee you a drug-free child, says Yvette Maher, a senior communication specialist for Focus on the Family, a faith-based non-profit organization dedicated to helping families in Colorado Springs, Colo. Drug abuse cuts across all socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic boundaries, but there’s no denying that strong parent-child relationships typically lead to positive outcomes. So be informed and be aware, say those in the know. And be engaged with your kids – even the little moments add up. “We know that parents who have a meal with their kids lower the risk of high-risk behavior by 82 percent,” Maher says.
Earn the Right to be Heard
That’s not the only significant statistic Mager has to offer, however. She cites other findings that may be tough to swallow, but can help kick-start parents into opening up with their offspring. For example, Maher cites a study that found children are 50 percent less likely to become involved with illegal substances if their parents are involved in their lives. On the other hand, other studies show that at least 5,000 teens try pot for the first time each year. And that the average age at which kids try illegal drugs is 14. Yes, 14.
Maher says parents should ask themselves if they honestly know their kid. Good questions to ask include: who is your child’s best friend, biggest hero, or favorite sport? And, if they haven’t already done so, parents need to start building rapport with their child. Then, when the young person does have questions about drugs or alcohol or other dangerous behaviors, the relationship is already solid and trust has been established. It won’t seem weird if you say “Hey, let’s talk,” out of the blue.
“You have to listen first to earn the right to be heard,” she says, “so start early in establishing a communication routine.”
Maher says another big issue surrounding drug abuse education and prevention is when to have the talk with your child about illegal substances. While it really depends upon the child and their environment, she says, 8 years old isn’t too young to start. Not coincidentally, she notes, the audience that Focus on the Family addresses about drug abuse are indeed younger than they were just five years ago.
Of course, when talking to your kids about drugs, use common sense and keep in mind the importance of using age-appropriate words and topics. For example, an article about drug-proofing your home on Focus on the Family website indicates that “… a 5-year-old boy may not be ready for a lecture about the physiology of cocaine addiction, but you should be ready to offer commentary when you and your child see someone smoking or drinking, whether in real life or in a movie.”
Some experts agree that it “sounds nuts” to start educating your youngster about drugs as early as five years old, but for many, it really does make sense. If your child sees you take an aspirin, for example, that in itself is showing them that taking a pill can help solve a problem and that isn’t the message conscientious parents want to send. The message is that kids watch more than they even listen to you.
So it’s up to you as a parent to explain that it’s all right for Daddy to tale that aspirin because he, for example, has a headache and is only taking one aspirin made for adults to help get rid of his pain. It’s also up to you as parents to store the medicine in a safe place, in a childproof container, and tell your child never to take medicine that belongs to someone else or that does not have their name on it.
With older children, the subject might come up if a favorite or well-known celebrity is battling drug or alcohol issues. According to TimeToTalk.org, an online resource of Partnership for a Drug-Free America, this could be a great opportunity to ask why your child thinks that person is so cool. You might also want to add that a good role model “should also be someone who drinks responsibly and either doesn’t do drugs or has taken the initiative to get help for their drug problem.”
Who, What, When?
As for whether or not a certain age group gravitates towards certain types of drugs, Baler says he and others in the scientific community stay away from such generalizations. Every individual is different and each situation is different, but easily accessed substances do tend to be the ones that kids experiment with first. Glues, dust-removal products, permanent markers, and even hand sanitizers are all prevalent – and legal – items in households that can produce a high when inhaled.
Baler says parents who suspect abuse of such products should be on the lookout for smelly clothes or bags in their kid’s room or around the house. They should also take notice if their child has slurred speech, poor hygiene or a dirty, sloppy appearance.
Tobacco products and liquor, if they aren’t in the home, are generally not too difficult for young hands to reach. What’s more, neither are prescription medicines. Maher says the latter have been increasingly popular in the past few years and have even prompted the phenomenon or “pharm parties,” at which a group of kids get together and everyone bring prescription medication from their own home. They then mix the pills in a bowl, pull out a few and swallow what could be a very devastating mix of medicines, usually with alcohol.
“[They] just see what happens,” Maher says. Baler says young people often also don’t view prescription medication as harmful because it’s obtained from a doctor. Their reasoning, he says, is, “How bad can it possibly be?”
Perhaps a bit more challenging to obtain, but still fairly accessible, is marijuana and salvia, which has had its share of headlines in recent months. Baler has noticed that kids are more drawn to drugs such as these because they think they’re “safe” – poor perhaps not as dangerous – because they’re made from plants and therefore must be a natural product. He urges parents to be mindful of their words as “kids are attuned to anything that might be seen as safe.” And that’s one reason why he is so displeased with the medical marijuana campaign.
“Once [kids] hear marijuana has a medical use, it lowers their perception of its danger,” he says. “What we as adults and the media do has an impact.
As for what to look for, drug paraphernalia comes in all shapes and sizes, Maher says. Hollowed out pens can be containers, head shops sell containers resembling soda cans, and something that looks like a keychain can turn into a roach clip.
“Even a toilet paper roll can be used as a pipe for marijuana or black tar heroin,” she says.