This year may have had you wondering, “Can I let my child have a friend over as part of their ‘pod’?” But as things return to normal, a more common question may be, “Do I let my child go to a party where there could be alcohol?”
These may seem like very different questions, but they’re both about finding the balance between our need to protect and allowing our children to meet their needs. The surefire way to prevent children from contracting or transmitting the virus is to isolate them completely. However, most of us have made concessions so they don’t suffer emotionally and socially for the sake of guaranteeing their physical health. Similarly, there is no absolute way to keep kids completely safe from substance use or its harms.
So, what is the answer? Many of the skills you’ve applied to meet the challenges of this past year can help you find the right balance in your family. These skills can also keep your child safe from the harm of youth substance use.
To protect ourselves from COVID-19, we’ve had to become well informed on which factors increase risk for contracting or transmitting the virus. Likewise, being well informed on risk factors for substance use and addiction will help you better protect your child.
If your child has pre-existing health conditions, you’ve likely helped them understand their heightened risk for COVID-19. If there is a family history of addiction, it’s just as important that your child understand their need to be especially cautious about using nicotine, alcohol or other drugs.
Our children learned to protect themselves and others by wearing masks, keeping socially distant and washing hands. They can similarly learn what actions to take to protect themselves and their peers from substance use. This includes being aware of how to act responsibly on those occasions where substances are available, use is encouraged or someone experiences poisoning or overdose.
This year has helped us learn healthier coping skills to better navigate the many challenges and stressors surrounding COVID-19. Those same types of coping skills can equip children to more successfully navigate problems that could otherwise lead to substance use.
You may have emphasized that rules and restrictions related to COVID-19 are based in love and care rather than a desire to control. Similarly, you can explain that the limits and boundaries in place to protect them from substance use are also based in care and compassion.
Your child has likely benefitted from open and honest conversation with you about concerns and anxieties during the pandemic. They can similarly benefit from honest conversation around substance use, based in facts instead of fear tactics or threats.
One of the best ways to encourage safe practices like mask wearing and social distancing is to model the behavior ourselves. In much the same way, it’s important to model healthy behaviors surrounding substance use. Avoid conveying the need to smoke, drink or use drugs in order to relax, relieve stress or have fun.
If a child lapses and violates COVID-19 guidelines, you’d likely respond by reiterating the required protective measures and reinforcing safety messages rather than punishment. If a child uses substances or develops signs of a problem, responding with care and love rather than admonishment can lead to a better outcome.
If your child developed COVID-19 symptoms, you would seek medical care and take the necessary steps to promote recovery while keeping your family safe. This is no different than seeking effective care and treatment if a child shows signs of problem substance use or addiction, while seeking support for yourself and family.
Whether protecting our kids from COVID-19 or experiencing the harms of substance use or addiction, the ultimate goal is the same. We want to ensure that we set them on a healthy course of development and guide them toward adulthood with their health, safety, and emotional and social wellbeing intact. As you find a new normal post-pandemic, try not to lose sight of the influence and new tools you have to keep your child safe.