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Don’t wait until the teen years to discuss drugs and alcohol

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Child reaching in medicine cabinet

In this article, you’ll find answers to questions like:

1. When to start talks?
2. How to ease tension?
3. Who can help?

When our children are little, concern about drug and alcohol misuse is far from our minds. However, the evening news warns about the latest designer drugs while our social media feed is flooded with nightmare stories about teenage binge drinking.

That's why experts advise parents to start the conversation early.


“Conversations need to be early, often and age appropriate,” says Jan Cairnes, chief executive officer of the Hanley Foundation in West Palm Beach. “The easiest message to give children of all ages is to model appropriate drinking behavior. For example, have a glass of wine with dinner, not a bottle; have a beer, not a six-pack.”

It’s best to speak in an age-appropriate manner, says Jeff Kadel, executive director of the Palm Beach County Behavioral Health Coalition in Boynton Beach. “Don’t tell a 6-year-old he is four times more likely to become addicted to alcohol if he drinks before the age of 15. Instead, explain some things are bad for growing brains and bodies,” he says.

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, based in New York City, offers dialogue ideas for parents to engage children of all ages. For example, tell children to never share medications and that even gummy vitamins can make them sick if they take too many at once.


It’s essential to maintain a close relationship with your child, Kadel says.

“You’ll face less conflict when it comes to monitoring their behavior and social life,” he says. “Studies show that families who argue, fight and treat each other badly and parents who are degrading and use physical punishment have unsupportive child relationships and increase the risk for drug and alcohol use.”

The Hanley Foundation also wants parents to share the good news with their children that most children in our area don’t drink.

“In fact, 75 percent of Palm Beach County youth do not drink,” Cairnes says. “Acknowledging that trends are always changing is a great first step to staying informed.” 

To address new designer drugs such as Flakka, which has been widely talked about recently in South Florida, the Palm Beach County Behavioral Health Coalition created a website called Don't Be a Guinea Pig.

“It illustrates the mystery ingredients of these new drugs, emphasizing you have a lot to live for. You don’t know what these drugs may do to you, so don’t be a guinea pig,” Kadel says.


Self-assessment tools are an excellent start for finding help. Mental Health America of Palm Beach County offers this free alcohol or substance-use screening online. Pam Gionfriddo, former chief executive officer, encourages parents to call 561-801-HELP (4357) if the screening indicates a problem. You also can make an appointment to take the screening in person.

If your child appears to be under the influence of a controlled substance, call 911 or go to the emergency room. Immediate medical attention can lower the risk of overdose or long-term side effects that could impact their well-being.

If you suspect your child may be using a controlled substance from time to time, call the 211 HelpLine or visit 211palmbeach.org. This free service can direct you to resources and programs, depending on your situation.

If you think your child is using drugs or alcohol, the Palm Beach County Behavioral Health Coalition recommends you:

• Trust your instincts

• Educate yourself
• Don’t take it personally
• Get professional help


• Jan Cairnes, chief executive officer, Hanley Foundation
• Jeff Kadel, executive director, Palm Beach County Behavioral Health Coalition
• Pam Gionfriddo, former chief executive officer, Mental Health America of Palm Beach County

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