Book Excerpt: 'How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid' By Joseph Califano

President Obama is re-framing what used to be called the 'war on drugs.' He wants to focus on illegal drug use as a public health issue and says he will put more resources into prevention and treatment. The new strategy boosts community-based programs, encourages health care providers to screen for drug problems before addiction sets in, and expands treatment beyond specialty centers to mainstream health care facilities. Joe Califano has studied teen drug use for 20 years as the founder of Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, and has advice for preventing drug abuse in his new book, "How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid," excerpted below.

Parents, if you had a crystal ball and could see your child's future, what would you want to see?

You'd want to see your child healthy, productive, and fulfilled, wouldn't you?

Every day, you work hard to be a good parent, doing hundreds of things to make that future come true for your child. But sometimes it's hard to know if all the big and little things you do make any difference.

What if I could tell you which parenting actions work?

What if I could tell you what specific things you can do to teach, protect, and empower your child to have the greatest chance of making that future come true?

Well, in this book I'm about to do just that.

Since 1992, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University — popularly called CASA — has been surveying teens and parents, talking to families, interviewing the best researchers, pediatricians, adolescent counselors, scientific experts, clergy of every faith, school nurses, teachers, and principals, studying the successes and failures of schools, parents, families, and teens with one objective: to find the most effective ways to raise drug-free children.

We've learned that raising healthy, drug-free kids is first and foremost a Mom-and-Pop operation, that your Parent Power is the key.

And we've learned that steering your kids away from alcohol and drug use will not only help give them a healthy childhood, it will also set them on the road to a healthy, productive, satisfying, and happy life as adults.


Because nearly two decades of CASA research demonstrate that a child who gets through age twenty-one without smoking, abusing alcohol, or using illegal drugs is virtually certain never to do so.

This book is designed to help you help your kids get through the formative years drug free.

I know how important this is to you because we at CASA receive so many calls and e-mails from parents for advice about how to help their sons and daughters negotiate that dangerous decade from ten to twenty-one without getting into alcohol and drugs or getting hooked on cigarettes.

We've learned from interviewing thousands of teens that they see drugs as the number one problem they face. And we've learned from talking to thousands of parents that their worst nightmare is that their child will become hooked on alcohol or illegal drugs, or suffer the devastating consequences of an auto accident or sexual assault as a result of a friend's alcohol or drug abuse.

Every American child will be offered alcohol, cigarettes, addictive prescription pills, marijuana, other illegal drugs, or a number of these substances before they graduate from high school. Many will get such offers while in middle school. And most will get such offers on numerous occasions.

This book will give you the tools to prepare your daughter or son for that moment of decision when a friend, a classmate, or a group at a party offers them a drink, a joint, a snort, or a pill to get high. It will give you the Parent Power to develop in your children the will and the skills to make healthy choices.

As a parent, you are the most influential source of information your child has. Talking to your child about smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and using other drugs is what's most likely to make a difference in whether your child gets into these things. Teenagers who learn about the risks of drugs from their parents are much more likely never to try them. So don't rely on your child's school, or some program, or anyone else to educate your children about the dangers of substance abuse.

You are the messenger that your children are likeliest to listen to.

The message to give your children about smoking and illegal drugs is straightforward: "No. Never." The message to give your children about alcohol is more complex: "No. Never for persons under twenty-one. Never for some others like alcoholics and those with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. But yes, in moderation, for other adults who wish to drink."

When you talk to your children about alcohol, cigarettes, and other substances, it is important that you feel comfortable and know what you're talking about. Teenagers will ask tough questions; they'll challenge you. You don't have to become a psychopharmacologist or substance abuse expert, but you do need to know enough to handle questions and challenges like:

•"You and Dad drink wine/beer/a martini with dinner. Why can't I?"
•"What's the difference between your drinking beer and my smoking pot?"
•"So long as I don't drink and drive, what's wrong with having a few beers at a party? All the other kids do."
•"Prescription drugs are safe. What's so bad about using them at a party?"
•"How could marijuana be bad for you if it's just a natural herb?"
•"Lots of kids on the football/basketball/soccer team/honor roll drink and smoke pot and they're fine."
•"Most kids who smoke cigarettes don't smoke pot, and most kids who smoke pot don't turn into drug addicts. I can handle it. Don't be so uptight."

This book will give you the tools to answer questions and challenges like these, and to deal with the distortions kids will hear from friends, movies, and music around them. The insights and information on these pages will give you the confidence to speak to your children comfortably and persuasively, with love and authority, about the dangers of adolescent drug, alcohol, and tobacco use. They will give you the tools to set clear and realistic expectations for your children about substance use, to know what to do if you discover your child is experimenting, and to recognize when your child (and you) might need professional help.

You'll learn why any drug use can open the door to future problems and heavier drug use. You'll see how drugs are particularly perilous for adolescents because their brains are still developing. You'll get the facts — a cold and true picture — about the substances teens are likeliest to use: cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and prescription drugs. At the end of the book, there's a "Parent Power Glossary for Parents and Teens" with detailed information about drugs like inhalants, DXM, OxyContin, ecstasy, and methamphetamine, what each drug looks like, how it works, what symptoms it causes, and how dangerous it is. You can refer to this glossary, alone or with your teen, to learn more about specific drugs.v

There are no silver bullets and there is no such thing as perfect parenting. Even the finest parents may end up suffering the anguish and pain of seeing a child become addicted to drugs or dying from alcohol poisoning in a college hazing incident. But parents have greater power than anyone else to reduce or eliminate those risks for their children.

For many parents, teen substance abuse is the boogeyman under the bed — something they fear and hope will never happen. This leads some parents to shut their eyes, pull up the covers, and hope for the best. But ignoring the threat of teen substance abuse or assuming there's no threat to your child won't make it go away. Your disengagement will simply leave your child alone to navigate the treacherous rapids of tobacco, alcohol, and illegal and prescription drugs without a parental compass to guide them.

At CASA we have no cultural agenda, no political leaning, no drug war to defend, no drug war to attack. We work hard to identify the most practical, realistic ways to help parents raise their children drug free. This may seem a daunting task in twenty-first-century America. But I know you can do it and I am convinced that this book will be an invaluable tool to help you use your formidable Parent Power to nourish in your children the will, skills, and strength to choose not to use.

Copyright 2009 by Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

This program aired on May 12, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.


More from Here & Now

Listen Live