Parents of very young children (ages 0-4) may think that they do not need to talk to their kids about substance use and abuse.
But you would be surprised to find out all the ways your child has already been exposed.
The opioid epidemic makes daily news appearances in ways intended to startle and scare. It can be difficult or impossible to protect children from age inappropriate content or our own instinctive reactions to worrisome situations. Even if you control your child’s exposure to media, children can encounter troubling material about drugs and alcohol accidentally or outside of your home. Children may even receive information in more personal ways—from a friend at preschool, an older sibling, or observations of loved ones who are personally affected. As a parent, you will want to be ready if you need to talk to your young child about drug and alcohol abuse.
(For general tips on talking to your kids, see my earlier post on having discussions about drugs and alcohol with kids of any age. Keep checking in for tips about elementary, middle, and high school aged kids as well as young /college-aged adults.)
Set the stage for later conversations. If you worry that you will not have the vocabulary to talk about drug and alcohol abuse with your child, you can use less intimidating moments to set the stage for future talks. With very young children, even conversations about respecting people’s bodies, eating healthy foods, and avoiding household poisons could give you and your child the language to talk about drugs and alcohol later on. Resources on these topics are more common, so you will also be more likely to find reliable tips on how to initiate these conversations with your child (for example, the Palmetto Poison Control Center’s guide for teaching children about household poisons).
Take a Hint
Moms and dads know their children’s needs best, but there are other top experts parents should be consulting… the kids! Young children will often let you know through their words or actions that they need your guidance.
You might notice a sudden change in behavior in children after they have been exposed to drug- or alcohol-related content. For example, infants may be more fussy after exposure to disturbing content (particularly sights and sounds) or even your own reaction. For lack of conversational options, you should respond to these telltale signs of stress with lots of cuddles, soothing talk, and other calming stimuli (such as a child’s favorite song).
Toddlers often work through new information using play, so in addition to marked changes in behavior, sleep, and food intake, you may notice unusual play behaviors related to drugs or alcohol. A precocious child may even ask about substance use/abuse outright.
Bring Out Your Inner Detective
If your child is old enough to carry on a basic conversation, start by asking them an open-ended question like “What do you know about that?” in order to determine your child’s preconceptions. This will give you a clue about what in particular might be bothering them. Ask follow up questions. As a general rule, respond only to what your child gives you and, even then, only in simple ways you think they could understand. No matter what you know about early childhood development in general, your own child is the world’s best resource on what is comfortable for them. Get your kid talking, and you won’t have to do much snooping or guessing.
Once you know what is going on with your child, the top priority is to make sure your child feels safe. Young children take new information very literally. If your child sees a news story, they cannot tell the difference between across the road, across the country, and across the world. If the TV uses a stock image of somebody taking a pill in a piece on drug overdose deaths, a child might think you are in danger the next time you take an Advil. These wild jumps in reasoning are a natural part of childhood, designed to keep our kids safe. Say and do everything you can to let your child know that, in that moment, they are safe, and you will do everything in your power to keep them safe. Because you are Super Parent, and you’ve got this.