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Health Focus: Beating the rush.

Byline: Dr Miriam Stoppard

LIKE it or not, children are experimenting with alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs earlier than ever - even at primary school. UK Department of Health figures in July 2002 claim that six per cent of 11-year-old children in Britain have taken illegal drugs at least once during the previous year. One in four 11-year-old boys and one in six girls of the same age have at least one alcoholic drink every week. So what can parents do? Miriam says it's time children were clued up.

IF a child knows about the effects of alcohol, smoking or drugs, she can take care of herself by being discerning and confident about saying no.

The more a child understands, the better able she'll be to resist peer-group pressure as she gets older.

CIGARETTES

ADULTS' attitudes to smoking are confusing for children.

Tobacco isn't against the law and most children know adults who smoke and enjoy it. Yet all the publicity says it's bad for you and adults always tell children never to start smoking.

Even if you're a smoker yourself, you owe it to your children to make the dangers of smoking very clear.

Better still, set a good example and give up. Research has shown children are less likely to smoke if their parents are anti-smoking.

What to tell your child

1 MAKE sure your child understands the dangers to health - how smoking damages lungs, causes cancer and heart attacks.

2 EXPLAIN the effects on your appearance. It ages skin and stains teeth and fingers yellow.

3 POINT out that, by smoking around other people, smokers make them inhale fumes and damage their health.

4 EXPLAIN smoking is addictive because the body gets used to the rush of nicotine in tobacco and wants it all the time. So it's best never to start.

5 STRESS smoking isn't grown up and children smoking look silly, not cool. Reassure your child it's fine to say no if a friend offers a cigarette. Ignore any teasing - smokers are the foolish ones.

6 LET them know new US research shows children can get addicted to smoking after just a couple of cigarettes a week.

ALCOHOL

CHILDREN see adults drinking all the time. Many pubs and bars are now open most of the day and alcohol is advertised on television, unlike tobacco.

Like smoking, alcohol is a puzzle for children. They're told it's OK for adults but not for them so, of course, they want to find out what the fuss is about.

Anything that's banned immediately becomes extra appealing for children.

If your child wants to know what your alcoholic drink tastes like, give her a sip. Nearly all children will find it disgusting and want to spit it out.

After the age of 10, some children may enjoy a little wine diluted with plenty of water with a meal, but that's enough.

This starts to teach them moderation and lessens the mystique of the whole business.

What to tell your child

1 WHILE alcohol is legal for adults, it's a poison and you can die of alcohol poisoning if you drink too much too quickly.

2 THE less you weigh, the more alcohol affects you, so there's a good reason for alcohol being illegal below a certain age. Annually, 1,000 children are admitted to hospital with acute alcohol poisoning.

3 TOO much alcohol makes you feel sick, gives you a hangover, poisons the liver and can damage the heart, stomach and brain and increase the risk of cancer.

Alcohol is very high in calories, so it can make you fat and it's bad for your skin.

4 ALCOHOL disrupts co-ordination and judgment.

Explain that drunk people can't drive safely - even if they think they can - and cause serious car accidents.

5 TEACH them it's best never to drink on an empty stomach but that a little alcohol with a meal is perfectly OK.

This is almost always better than an authoritarian approach and is more likely to encourage your child to be sensible and moderate in her habits when she's older.

DRUGS

THERE'S evidence children as young as nine or 10 are taking and even dealing drugs.

Your child is likely to hear about drugs, so she needs to know what to do and how to react. She also needs to know how to deal with pressure from kids who think taking drugs is exciting and glamorous.

The very strict approach doesn't work. Parents who won't have any kind of discussion about drugs, except to condemn them, make children go to great lengths to conceal what they're doing.

Far better to keep communication open so, if your child is offered illegal drugs at school, she feels able to tell you about it.

Parents have a role to inform and educate but scare tactics, moral indignation and finger wagging don't help.

Talking about drugs

BE honest with yourself and your child about your own drug use, past and present - be it alcohol nicotine, tranquillisers or cannabis.

DON'T be alarmist - give an accurate picture of the dangers of drug taking.

PREPARE your child for exposure to drugs by giving advice on what to do and say to resist them. Give this advice early to avoid her being caught unawares.

EXPLAIN that, although marijuana doesn't do a lot of harm unless smoked regularly, it's very bad for children. Long-term use can damage lungs, affect memory and bring on depression in teenagers.

STRESS the unpredictability of dance drugs such as ecstasy. They can be bulked out with other drugs, giving side effects like stopping breathing, cardiac arrest, even coma, so don't even try them.

EXPLAIN that hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin are habit-forming and people quickly become addicted. Warn this can lead to serious illness and hard drugs can eventually kill you.

ENCOURAGE your child to come to you straight away if she's offered drugs at school or anywhere else.

FOR further reading, Drugs Info File, by Dr Miriam Stoppard, is available from Mirror Direct on 0870 07 03 200, price pounds 5.99 including postage and packing.

STAY COOL

1 BE well informed yourself before you try to talk to a child about drugs. You risk losing your child's trust if you bluster against drugs without real facts.

2 BE aware smoking cannabis doesn't inevitably lead youngsters to more dangerous drugs.

3 CERTAIN things make a child more vulnerable to drug taking - low self-esteem, being ignored and starved of affection and over-authoritarian attitudes.

4 THE greatest antidote to taking hard drugs is high self-esteem, so help your child feel good about herself. Make sure she knows you love her, come what may.

CAPTION(S):

UP IN SMOKE: Children are risking their health
COPYRIGHT 2003 MGN LTD
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 20, 2003
Words:1120
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