Schools across the nation take up the fight against youth alcohol and drug abuse with the annual Red Ribbon Week, which began Saturday and runs through Halloween.

The week shares an anti-drug message with dress-up days and activities aimed at reaching kids of all ages.

The valiant efforts of local schools in this ongoing battle are much appreciated.

However, the best tool for keeping kids clean is right in their own homes.

Vigilant parents offer the most effective anti-drug message and techniques, experts say.

Through conversations and monitoring behavior and activities, parents have shown to have the greatest success rate in protecting kids from drugs and other risky behavior.

As the first true teacher in a child’s life, parents can both give the message and make sure the child follows through.

It’s not fun — but utterly essential — to be “the bad guy” who demands to know where your child is going, who he is going with and when he plans to return home. Parents reinforce how much they care by double-checking a teen’s story and then waiting for him to walk back through the door.

At the moment, the teen may think his parents are “totally uncool” for maintaining such close tabs and taking away opportunities for “fun.” True appreciation of the parent’s watchful eye won’t arise until that teen grows up and has children of his own.

So how do parents begin the conversation to protect kids against alcohol and drug abuse?

The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign’s Behavior Change Expert Panel offers these tips:

■ Be absolutely clear with your kids that you don’t want them using drugs. Ever. Anywhere. Don’t leave room for interpretation. And talk often about the dangers and results of drug and alcohol abuse. Once or twice a year won’t do it. Get more specifics on setting the rules.

■ Be a better listener. Ask questions — and encourage them. Paraphrase what your teen says to you. Ask for their input about family decisions. Showing your willingness to listen will make your teen feel more comfortable about opening up to you.

■ Give honest answers. Don’t make up what you don’t know; offer to find out. If asked whether you’ve ever taken drugs, let them know what’s important: That you don’t want them using drugs. Get the facts on drugs by visiting the Drug Information section.

■ Use TV reports, anti-drug commercials, or school discussions about drugs to help you introduce the subject in a natural, unforced way. Get more specifics on using teachable moments.

■ Don’t react in a way that will cut off further discussion. If your teen makes statements that challenge or shock you, turn them into a calm discussion of why your teen thinks people use drugs, or whether the effect is worth the risk.

■ Role-play with your teen and practice ways to refuse drugs in different situations. Acknowledge how tough these moments can be. Get more specifics on using role-playing.

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