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Empower your middle schooler to decline drugs and alcohol

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Drug free message written on knuckles

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

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

It may be hard to imagine your middle schooler abusing drugs or alcohol. However, the evening news warns about the latest designer drugs, while our social media feed is flooded with nightmare stories about teenage binge drinking.

Then there’s good, old-fashioned peer pressure that can really kick into gear in middle school.


“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.”

Empower younger teens to make their own decisions, even if it’s picking out clothes or choosing what to make for dinner. Encouraging your children to be independent thinkers can help them stay stronger later in challenging peer situations.

It’s best to speak in an age-appropriate manner, say Jeff Kadel, executive director of the Palm Beach County Behavioral Health Coalition in Boynton Beach.

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, based in New York City, offers dialogue ideas for parents to engage children of all ages and reminds parents they are the biggest influence in their children's lives when it comes to drug and alcohol use.


It’s essential to maintain a close relationship with your child during the teen years, 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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