My daughter C is in the fifth grade and we’ve been talking a lot about what she can expect when she starts in middle school next year, but last night she hit me with a question that despite all my public talking and writing about how important it is to talk to your children about drugs even as early as elementary school and middle school, this question hit me hard. I mean, we’ve talked a lot already about the lure and dangers of drugs but again, for this question – so forthright – really knocked me back.

She asked the simple question, “Mama, do some kids in middle school smoke cigarettes and use drugs?”

After taking a deep breath, I answered.

“Yes, I replied forcefully “there are many kids who experiment who will be both smoking and use drugs of all kinds when they’re in middle school, and you need to be ready to say no if and when cigarettes and drugs are offered to you. Remember that your brother Henry was only 14 – in 8th grade – when he first experimented with marijuana.

“But why?” she answered with a confused look on her face? Why would they use things that they know are so bad for them?”

Following this question, I took the opportunity to make it clear to her that under NO circumstances would Jon and me accept ANY drug or alcohol use. I feel that this is an important first step in talking to your kids – to VERY clearly communicate to your kids that drug experimentation is absolutely verboten in your family. This is a simple but critical message  that I never communicated clearly enough to Henry before he began using marijuana. It’s not that I ever  encouraged drug or alcohol use but I never explained clearly that in our family we had an absolutely ZERO tolerance for any substance use.

This answer seemed to reassure her. It gave her a simple but powerful framework for what is allowed and disallowed in our family, no matter what happens outside our home – like in the school.

I also explained that if anyone ever offers her drugs, she should angrily respond that not only would she we never consider experimenting with offered drugs, she should tell the other child that drugs KILLED her older brother. Despite all the ridicule that Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign received, I actually believe that there’s tremendous value in just saying a powerful “NO” to other kids who offer alcohol and drugs and just  walking away. Additionally, I told her that she should always tell a trusted adult that this particular child had offered her drugs because she could be saving a life.

We then sat down together and once again, we watched the documentary about Henry’s addiction, and how it started in middle school and ended only a few years later with his death by addiction. I believe that this documentary provides an excellent framework for children 8 and older to begin a dialogue with their parents about why drugs are such a serious threat and how they can lead to addiction and ultimately, death.

But here we go. It’s almost time for my 10 year old little girl to begin middle school, where so much substance abuse begins. And this absolutely terrifies me. I can do my very best to educate C about the dangers that too often lurk around the fringes of even the “best”middle schools, but I really can’t protect her 24 hours a day. I wish so very much that she could just stay as a student at her small and wonderful elementary school but she can’t. It’s just about time to begin loosening the apron strings and letting her face potentially terrible situations all on her own.

And all I can do is all I can do.

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