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Q. "My husband and I are raising a 12-year-old who is in middle school. We know that our son will soon be faced with issues around drugs and sex. We want to make sure he knows we wouldn't approve of him doing too much, too fast, and too young. We don't want him to think we feel he's a troublemaking kid, and we also don't want to promote any bad behavior by talking about these difficult topics. How can we strike a balance between making our son aware of the dangers that lie down the road, without planting bad ideas in his head?"
A. The best time to talk to kids about drugs and sex is when they're between the ages of 6 and 12. Children during middle childhood are most open to a parent's influence. Once they hit the teen years, they question and even rebel against their parents' ideas, sometimes turning in the opposite direction just to prove they're independent of their parents' beliefs.
By opening up the subjects of drug use and sexual activity now, you equip your child with a shield against forces that exist in the teen world. Now is the time. Don't wait -- at 12 years old your son still likes you. He'll listen. The likelihood is great that he'll take on your values as his own. If you wait much longer to have this important discussion he may not be as open to you and your values.
You're not planting ideas in your son's head by discussing drugs and sex openly with him. Living in today's American culture, your son has been exposed to these issues already. Kids talk about them at school and he's probably seen TV shows and videos that glamorize these topics. He's probably confused and he'll feel better knowing where you stand.
Before you bring up the topic, get informed about the drug and sex scene where your son attends school and among his friends. Talk to the principal, coaches, scout leaders, and counselors. Call a meeting of your son's friends' parents; invite an expert to speak on the topic.
Now think about your specific opinions on these topics. Also contemplate the hopes, expectations, and vision you hold for your child's future. Once you've come to terms with your own thoughts and feelings, you can begin to address the topic with your son.
You might want to start the conversation by explaining your fears about early sex and drug use. Offer statistics. Tell him about a person you know or someone in the news whose life changed for the worse because of early sexual activity or drug use. When watching a TV program or video with a storyline featuring sex and drugs, offer your opinion and feelings on the subject.
Driving in the car can be one of the best times to converse. Since you're driving and he's looking ahead, the conversation can be less confrontational. Every conversation about these topics doesn't need to be a major sit-down discussion. Sometimes you and he will both learn more from each other by exchanging casual anecdotes and opinions.
It takes courage to address these tough topics with your children. You may goof up, say the wrong thing in the wrong way at the wrong time, but go ahead and say it anyway. You can always go back and correct yourself. If nothing else, say, "I expect that you will not use drugs or become sexually active during high school. It's only because I love you so much."