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Preventing Youth Substance and Alcohol Use and Abuse

By: Jena Monahan

It is an unfair and hard truth that kinship children are at a higher risk for drug and alcohol use and abuse due to their experiences that were out of your control and outside of your care. Common risk factors for drug or alcohol use include a family history of substance abuse, a mental or behavioral health condition, a history of traumatic events such as abuse or neglect, and/or low self-esteem. Although your child(ren) may have one or more of these risk factors, the great news is they CAN be reduced. There are several actions you can take as a caregiver to help reduce that risk, many of which you may already be doing. The following suggestions have been provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Building the Communication Foundation
According to NIDA, developing good communication between you and your child acts as a foundation for a strong and healthy relationship. Through good communication you can encourage positive behavior, an awareness of what is going on in your child(ren)’s life, and an opportunity to discover issues or concerns early. Before engaging in a serious conversation with your child(ren) it is recommended that you ensure it is a good time to talk so that your child can focus. We know too well that a tired child is not likely to have a productive conversation. It can also help to set a time frame for the discussion, so everyone has the same expectation. Furthermore, it is helpful for you to be prepared for the conversation by having your thoughts together; this can include having outlined what you would like to discuss and preparing yourself for the potential responses you might receive and how you would like to handle them.  

NIDA also recommends that during discussions with your child(ren) it is advantageous to ask questions to keep the conversation going and to show your interest in their thoughts. The way you ask questions can influence the answers you receive so there are suggestions on ways to best ask questions. First, if you ask questions without being accusatory while showing interest or concern it will likely result in a more open and honest answers and will encourage more conversation. For example, NIDA recommends that instead of saying, “How do you get yourself into these situations?”, you can say, “That sounds like a difficult situation. Were you confused?” You also want to encourage problem-solving/thinking. You can do this by asking, “What do you think would have been a better way to handle that?” rather than asking, “What did you think was going to happen?”  

We also suggest that you make sure your child(ren) knows you are listening and that you understand what they are saying, and active listening is an excellent way to accomplish this. Not only does it show them that you are listening and makes them feel understood, but it also helps ensure that you understand what is being said to you and where they are coming from. Simple ways that you can engage in active listening include:
  • Making eye contact.
  • Not interrupting. 
  • Nodding your head to acknowledge what has been said.
  • Asking questions about the topic to express interest or to gain clarification.
  • Sharing your understanding of what they have said, providing them an opportunity to correct any confusion.

NIDA articulates that it is important that you manage your emotions while listening and engaging in a conversation. While it is completely normal to struggle to manage your emotions when engaging in conversations regarding your child’s safety and well-being it is also normal for those emotions to impact the conversation. It can be difficult to remain on topic or to be open and honest if you see that the person you are talking to is crying or raising their voice for example. NIDA suggests using the following CALM acronym to help remember to regulate your emotions or if you are unable to regulate your emotions what to do.

C – Control your thoughts and actions.
A – Assess and decide if you are too upset to continue. -- There is nothing wrong with this.
L – Leave the situation if you are feeling too angry/upset. -- You can always return to the conversation and share your what you were experienceing.
M – Make a plan to deal with the situation. -- When you know what to expect it is easier to manage your emotions.

Encourage Your Child
Another key component identified by National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is providing encouragement as it leads to building confidence and a strong sense of self. NIDA states, “Consistent encouragement helps youth feel good about themselves and gives them confidence to try new activities, tackle different tasks, develop new friendships, and explore creativity.” NIDA articulates three main messages you want to convey to your child.  

1.     You can do it! You can encourage this message by:
     ·        Helping them break a problem down into smaller parts.
     ·        Reminding them of their strengths and past successes.
     ·        Encouraging them by sharing how they have handled challenges.
2.     You have good ideas! This message can be encouraged by you:
     ·        Asking them to share their opinions and feelings.
     ·        Listening to what they have to say
     ·        Asking them for their input regarding family plans and events.
     ·        Asking them for ideas to solve family problems.
3.     You are important! A child knows they are important if you:
     ·        Remember what they have told you.
     ·        Make time for them each day.
     ·        Let them know what you are thinking about them when you cannot be with them.
     ·        Display things they have made and recognitions they receive.

Establish Rules and Consequences
You may feel that consequences could detour your child(ren) from coming to you with a problem, but there is evidence to the contrary. NIDA explains that setting limits is essential and teaches children self-control and responsibility, how to show care, and provides them safe boundaries.

When you make rules, you want to ensure that they are clear, simple, and specific; this helps make sure there are clear expectations and helps remove room for a child’s excuses for breaking a rule. You also want to verify that your child understands your rules. A simple way to ensure this is to have your child explain their understanding of a rule. Also, a list of consequences that may be implemented can provide motivation for a child to follow set rules. Finally, you want to be ready to and make sure you follow through with consequences when a rule is broken. NIDA states that research shows that setting limits is most effective when there is follow up and consequences immediately.

Provide Consistent Supervision
Direct supervision is an easy task when a child is young, but as they get older and venture out on their own the ability to directly supervise becomes less, but this is an independence we want to encourage. Although you may not be able to have all eyes on your youth there are other ways to provide necessary supervision. NIDA provides “The 4 C’s of Supervision” to help guide you.

1. Clear Rules – Have non-negotiable rules about activities when you are not around to supervise. For example:
  • Require a phone number for the place they will be.
  • Require 24-hour notice for a sleepover or event so that you can look into it and ensure you are comfortable with the circumstances.
  • Do not allow friends at your house when you are not present.
2. Communication – Stay in contact with other parents, teachers, coaches, etc. to:
  • Keep you involved in your child’s activities.
  • Create resources to deal with problems and to build a strong safety network for your child.
  • Inform you of dangerous places or people.
3. Checking Up – This shows your child that you care about them and that the rules you set are important. This is not not a sign of distrust, you are trusting and verifying.
  • When your child gives you the phone number a friend, call it to talk to the parent.
  • Meet the parents of child’s friends to ensure they will provide a safe and supervised situation.
  • Find out the details of events or parties your child wants to attend to ensure you are comfortable  with the limits in place.
  •  Have your child check in with you upon arrival to a location.
  • Check in with your child at different times.
  • Surprise your child with a random visit.
4. Consistency – Be consistent with the rules and consequences you have put in place; all the while be consistent in giving praise and incentives for rules followed.

Know Their Friends
You may have heard the saying, “show me your friend’s and I will show you the future”, and although this may not always be true, adolescence is certainly a prominent time where friends can have a strong influence, or they seek to impress one another. NIDA recommends the best ways to combat the potential for negative influence is to be involved with your child. Being involved with your child includes knowing their friends and their families and being involved in your child’s activities and by doing so it helps provide you with the opportunity to see a problem before it occurs or to interfere in a problem early. It also does not hurt to have your child feel like they would not get away with something because they know you are around and when you are not someone you are connected to is seeing and hearing about what they are doing. Last, but not least, your involvement means you are an influence over them and possibly influence over their friends because the open communication discussed previously helps you be the voice inside their head when they are in a difficult situation or faced with an impactful decision.
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