Establish & Maintain Good Communication With Your Teen / Child
Get into the habit of talking with your child every day. Your child is an individual with hopes, fears, likes, dislikes, and special talents. The more you know about your child, the easier it will be to guide her toward more positive activities and friendships. As a result, your child will be less likely to experiment with alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs. Establishing a close relationship with your child now will make it easier for her to come to you when she has a problem.
“I try to remind myself what’s important here. Is it more important that he knocked over the milk or that he told me and helped me clean it up?” –Dan, father of 7-year-old Matthew.
It’s important not to be critical. Positive reinforcement and constructive support are more effective in influencing children’s behavior than criticism.
Action Steps to Good Communication
- Take the Quick Quiz on the previous page. Ask your child what the answers are and let him lead you into a longer conversation. You can talk about one question a day or one a week. Think of other questions you can ask one another. Consider making the questions and conversations part of your daily routine.
- Set aside a few minutes a day. Talk about problems or challenges that might have come up during the day and discuss how you handled them. You can ask your child for his ideas on simple matters to help him build problem-solving skills. These skills can help him resist peer pressure to use alcohol and drugs to solve problems.
- Decision making skills are important
- Children learn how to make decisions. You can guide them with a key set of questions to ask when faced with a choice:
What am I trying to decide and what do I know about it?
How do I know my information is accurate? Who gave me the information?
What more do I need to know before going ahead?
Who has the added information I need?
Once the decision is made, ask these questions:
- What are the good effects of this decision?
- What are the bad effects?
After this, you can ask your child to reconsider a decision and take responsibility for the consequences.
Validate your child’s feelings. Sometimes, children react to situations in ways we think are inappropriate, silly, or overdramatic. That’s because children don’t have the benefit of our adult experience. What is minor to us may be very important to them. For example, if your child says, “Mrs. Smith doesn’t like me. She gives me too much homework,” don’t dismiss your child by saying, “That’s ridiculous. Everyone gets the same amount of homework.” Instead, validate your child’s feelings, investigate the situation, and guide her toward a better understanding of the situation. “Oh, I wouldn’t like it if I felt my teacher didn’t like me. But does everybody get the same homework assignment?” If you’re not sure you have all the facts regarding a situation, assure your child you will take action, such as talking to Mrs. Smith. This lets your child know that you respect her feelings and are willing to help her work through difficult situations.
Practice active listening. When you show interest in what your child has to say, he or she will open up. One technique to show you’re listening and understanding is to paraphrase what your child tells you. Try doing this the next time you have a conversation. For example, your child says, “I like playing soccer, but practice is the same time as my favorite show on TV.” You might say, “Wow, that’s a tough choice. On one hand, you really like playing soccer; on the other hand, you don’t want to miss your favorite show.”
Ask questions. Children have a lot to share when they think their opinions matter. Ask for your child’s input about family decisions. These decisions may range from what to have for dinner to where to go for a family outing. Showing your interest in her opinion will make your child feel more comfortable about opening up to you.
If you are successful in establishing open lines of communication with your child about day-to-day events, he or she will be more likely to seek your input on more serious issues as well. Many of the skills you use in daily conversations may prove useful when discussing tougher issues. Here’s just one example:
Your 11-year-old tells you a friend offered him some marijuana (or other substance). You can begin your conversation by asking for more information.
Q: “What do you know about marijuana (or other substance)?”
A: [Chances are your child will have some information on marijuana (or other substance), but not all of the information may be accurate. If your child doesn’t know about the harms of marijuana (or other substance), you can do the following things together to find out more:]
Ask more questions to continue the conversation.
Q: “Do you know what happens if you use marijuana (or other substances)?”
A: [Listen to your child’s response. Does he mention any of the consequences listed below? If not, you should mention them. We have used marijuana as the example here.]
- Smoking marijuana is illegal and could result in getting suspended or kicked out of school, being sent to jail or juvenile detention, and having a criminal record. All of these things could affect the rest of his life.
- Smoking marijuana sets a bad example for younger siblings.
- Smoking marijuana will hurt his lungs and cause him to perform poorly in sports.
- Smoking marijuana will hurt his brain and could result in memory loss, bad grades, and a loss of motivation.
- Smoking marijuana would affect his relationship with you and others he cares about.
- Smoking marijuana would affect the whole family greatly. State what the resulting consequences would be in your family.
Express thoughts and feelings
Being able to express thoughts and feelings with someone we feel comfortable around—whether it is a spouse, a coworker, or a friend—can make all the difference in how we feel about ourselves and in how we interact with the world around us.
Similarly, young people need opportunities to express their thoughts and new feelings. When we try to limit the thoughts and feelings of our children, we take a great deal away from them. When we deny that their feelings are real, we are denying that children are individuals with their own perceptions. Young people who are taught to express themselves have an easier time dealing with peer pressure and resisting other temptations.
Other important messages you can share with your child when talking about marijuana or other substances include:
- While some people smoke marijuana and use drugs, most young people do not.
- Drugs can get in the way of achievement in areas that are really important, such as sports, singing, dancing, music, auto repair, acting, or art. Youth is a time for learning new things—finding friends and building support networks. A young person who uses drugs often can get caught up in the drug culture and miss out on the fun and rewarding opportunities available to her.
- Academic performance can be affected by drug use. Using drugs takes time away from studying and can have a negative impact on the brain, inhibiting learning abilities. A young person with hopes of going to college may find that drugs interfere with attaining academic goals.
- Children need to know that drug use doesn’t just affect them. It also can have a negative effect on their relationships with others. A friend may get angry if the child starts to steal money or things to trade for her drugs. A brother or sister might feel hurt because of changes in behavior that make the child seem distant or moody.
- Negative behaviors like these can turn into a bad cycle. A young person may think that a teacher or friend or grandparent doesn’t like her anymore because the child does not realize her behavior (drug use) has changed the relationship. A child, without being able to see this, just says, “Forget it. Nobody likes me anyway.” This attitude can begin to spread to other relationships and then serves as a primary defense for using illegal drugs—“Nobody cares about me, so why shouldn’t I smoke marijuana?”
Susan and Samantha’s Story
Susan has made constant adjustments to her work schedule to reflect her changing needs and those of her family. Recently, she cut down the number of hours she works. Both Susan and her husband thought it was important to slow down the hectic pace they had been living since Samantha was born 8 years ago. Now there’s more time to relax, play, and just talk to each other.
“Good communication is not just listening when she talks, but asking her about what’s happening in her life. And when she seems troubled, I ask her about it. Sometimes I do have to coax a little, but I think she likes knowing that I care and she can come to me when she has a problem. I also talk a lot about our family’s values. Open communication shouldn’t be a special thing; it should be a daily thing. “Sam is very inquisitive and curious. Right now, she comes to me with a lot of her questions, but I know that, as she gets older, she’ll be looking to her friends for information more and more. I figure if I build this foundation of trust and communication now, when it gets tough—the teenage years—she’ll still feel comfortable coming to me with her questions. Having this type of relationship with Sam makes me feel rejuvenated. It also gives me the chance to guide her point of view so that she can make better choices now and when she’s older.”
Communication Is Important Because… Some Kids Use Drugs To Satisfy Curiosity
Children are very curious about alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. They are exposed to drug messages on TV, in the movies and videos, in newspapers and magazines, at school, on the Internet, and in conversations with friends and family. Even if we have done an outstanding job of educating and nurturing the children in our care, some children will remain curious about alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. Their sources of drug information may not always be accurate or have their best interests at heart. But you do. That’s why it’s important for you to know about the drugs your child may be exposed to and for you to communicate the consequences associated with them.