The best time to start talking to your kids about alcohol and drugs is right now while schools across the country are participating in Red Ribbon Week. The Red Ribbon Week campaign was established in 1985 to heighten awareness of the destruction that these substances cause and to motivate youth to participate in drug prevention activities. It’s really never too early to start the conversation about choosing a healthy lifestyle. Shockingly, a 2010 survey conducted by SAMHSA reported that about 21% of children have used some type of illicit drugs by the 8th grade! The goal of this program is to encourage open and public discussion about the subject because studies show that teens are 42% less likely to use drugs if they feel free to talk with their parents or caregivers about the subject.
As I was listening to the Red Ribbon Week presentation during the morning assembly at my child’s elementary school, I also heard some parents discussing how horrified they were that the subject is brought up to 7 – 11 year olds. They felt like there’s no reason to introduce it at such a young age, like bringing it up will make them want to do it. The truth is the earlier we can bring it up in an age appropriate way, the better. Pre-teens and young adults often make risky decisions and we now know why. Scientific studies tell us that the brain is not fully developed until young adulthood, which is at about 25 years old. During the pre-teen years, the brain only has about 50% of the neurochemicals it needs to make decisions and exercise good judgment. Brain imaging scans prove that adolescence is a time associated with the greatest risk for developing a drug or alcohol use problem probably because the pre-frontal cortex is not done growing. When kids do drugs during this time in their lives, they not only have a higher risk of becoming a long-term abuser but it has been associated with changes in brain structure, function and learning abilities.
Now that the states of Washington and Colorado have legalized marijuana, Americans seem to be easing up on the idea. According to the most recent Gallup pole, approximately 58% of the nation now supports legalizing marijuana, which is a historic high. The general belief is that marijuana isn’t a very dangerous drug and should be as available as alcohol. However, it’s important to keep in mind that regular use of marijuana (like alcohol) is dangerous for the teen’s developing mind. It has all the same side effects as smoking a cigarette but without the nicotine addiction, so it increases the chances of coughing, wheezing and getting chronic lung disease. Other effects of early use include decreased brain size, a slowed rate of thinking, memory disorders, lower IQ’s and lack of motivation.
Despite these facts, it remains that teen marijuana use is at a 30 year high. Many adolescents believe that it’s safer than drinking alcohol and have bought into the myth that it’s not addictive, or that it doesn’t impact their ability to do well in school. In reality, THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) contributes to an imbalance in thinking and coordination, wreaks havoc on concentration and can actually increase anxiety. Some other negative results include lower grades, increased moodiness, promiscuity, drug related legal problems and sometimes even aggression.
In the elementary schools, the Red Ribbon Week agenda focuses on how important it is to exercise, stay fit, eat healthy and stay away from drugs. As they get older, the discussion becomes more specific. All of this is important information for your child to hear over and over again from first grade until you send them off to college. Heightening awareness will help them to understand what your view is and what the boundaries in your family are. Many parents like to have their child take a drug education class as a proactive measure as well. The more information they are armed with, the higher the chance that they will choose to walk away from any temptations or peer pressure. Education is the key to prevention.