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How Can We Protect Our Children?

All children are at risk of developing substance abuse problems if they are exposed to addicting substances and use them repeatedly. But a number of risk factors increase the chances that they will become addicted, including:

Caseworker with grandfather and grandson

Caseworker with grandfather and grandson at La Bodega de la Familia, a New York-based program that helps the families of addicted people.

Family History
Alcoholism or addiction in the family

Family Environment
Domestic violence or child abuse
Lack of adult supervision

Childhood aggression
Lack of problem-solving skills

Rejection by peers
Lack of commitment to school

If your child has some of these risk factors, he or she is NOT doomed to become a substance abuser. Even kids at high risk may never develop an addiction. By taking steps now, you can help your child avoid -- or delay -- any drug experimentation. And delay is key: Kids who start experimenting at an early age are at considerably higher risk for developing addictions. Someone who makes it to age 20 without abusing drugs/alcohol is less likely to develop a substance abuse problem. Here are just a few of the things you can do:

1. Do a family history to determine whether your family has shown signs of alcoholism or other addiction. If so, your children are especially vulnerable. Let them know they can take steps such as abstaining from substances that cause addiction.

2. Evaluate your own use of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. If you walk in the door at night and grab a beer, or light up a cigarette every time you get tense, what are you conveying to your child about how to cope with life and its stresses?

3. Foster strong family bonds to help counter powerful peer influences. If kids have a sense of belonging within their own families, they will be less likely to seek it elsewhere.

4. Set clear expectations for behavior. In a major survey, thousands of teens reported that their biggest reason for choosing not to drink -- or drinking less than they would have -- is that their parents would be upset by it.

5. Let your kids know they can talk to you about anything, without harsh judgment or lectures. And be on the look-out for "teachable moments," like when your child raises the subject of drugs, or when an anti-drug commercial comes on TV.

6. Expose your children to activities like sports, art, music, reading, or drama, so that they develop avid interests. When kids are bored, they are more likely to experiment.

7. Help your child feel a part of his or her school. Go to school functions with your child whenever you can. Research shows that children who feel bonded with their school are less likely to use substances.

8. Teach your child to make independent decisions. Allow your kids to make some of their own decisions, so that, when faced with offers of drugs or alcohol, they can resist pressure.

9. Teach your child to cope with frustration and stress. When your child is upset, help him or her to learn ways to feel better -- like talking about it, taking a walk, or relaxation techniques.

10. Teach your child to be skeptical of sales pitches. Whether watching commercials or passing a billboard advertising cigarettes or alcohol, help your child discern between the salesperson's interest and his or her own.

Counselor assisting student

Children learn about health in the Black Church Project run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Suggested reading: National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Preventing Drug Use Among Children and Adolescents." Washington, D.C.: National Institutes of Health, 1997.

-- Donna Boundy

This article is an excerpt from the Family Guide for MOYERS ON ADDICTION: CLOSE TO HOME, produced by the Educational Publishing Department of Thirteen/WNET. The entire guide is available, free of charge, by downloading it to your computer or requesting a copy by mail.

Top photo: Courtesy of La Bodega de la Familia
Bottom photo: Courtesy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

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