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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Chances are your kids play sport and follow the fortunes of their favorite athlete. They might idolize this person, watching them and reading about them in the media, and perhaps being lucky enough to go and see them perform. Maybe your children want to emulate their hero when they grow up. What happens when this athlete is caught taking performance enhancing or other illegal drugs? How do you explain this to your children?

Your kids have probably received at least some drug education at school. Start off by asking what this involved. Ask them questions such as whether they know anyone at school who has taken drugs and whether this person might also have some good characteristics. You could ask your children why they think this person might have resorted to drugs. They might respond with various reasons which they may have learnt in class. This will set the scene and allow them to keep an open mind rather than have them suddenly either hating their hero or saying they must be innocent.

Discuss with them the reasons elite athletes might take performance enhancing drugs, and that it might not be just one or two reasons but many. Tell your children these people can often be under great pressure to perform. They don’t want to let anyone down and that includes your children and thousands of other fans. Champion athletes have an immense desire to win; otherwise, they probably wouldn’t have been able to work their way up through the age and graded competitions to get to where they are today. Sometimes, a whole country rides on the success or otherwise of a particular athlete, for example, at the Olympic Games.

Further pressure to perform comes from the fact that top sport is professional these days and competitors know they have to perform to make a living. Their time at the top is short, and they will strive for the chance to win prize money or gain lucrative endorsements and sponsorship deals. Families and coaches can place extra pressure on your children’s idol. On occasions, a coach may even encourage drug use. Poor scheduling of competitions or the setting of unrealistic performance standards by administrators could contribute to an athlete’s stress level.

Explain to your kids that the reasons their hero took drugs might have included a desire to speed up recovery after injury, or because they believe their opponents are using drugs and they feel they have to do the same to be competitive. Another thing you could say is that just because their hero is the best runner, swimmer or player, this doesn’t mean that they have no weaknesses. Also, people of all descriptions can suffer self-doubt, a lack of confidence, and depression. Sometimes these things can cause stress, or stress can cause them. This might make a champion athlete succumb to drug taking.

The drugs taken by the athlete might not have been of the performance enhancing variety but party or recreational drugs. Again, point out that all types of people do this for all sorts of reasons. Athletes have a life outside their sport and will often go to nightclubs and parties where drugs are available. Peer pressure might cause them to weaken in these situations, or the problem might be an inability to relax, or something as simple as shyness in a social setting.

Being more specific about the performance enhancing properties of the drugs an athlete took might help your children to further understand why this person decided to use these substances. Make sure you cover the undesirable side effects too, so they are aware of the dangers. For example, anabolic steroids increase muscle strength, giving greater endurance. But they can cause liver damage, depression, and mood swings. Human growth hormone strengthens bones and reduces body fat but might lead to heart problems and enlarged organs. Erythropoietin raises oxygen levels, though it thickens the blood and can result in a heart attack or stroke. Some drugs mask pain and allow an athlete to keep competing, such as narcotics and cortisone, but the risk is further damage. A relaxant like marijuana may be used. This can cause hallucinations, impair mental functions, and lift the heart rate.

Perhaps make analogies between the drug-taking athlete and people in other areas of life who want to succeed so much that they do the wrong thing. People in corporations might be so keen to gain promotions and get ahead that they resort to bullying and back stabbing. Those in politics are usually quite ambitious too and may occasionally not be afraid to use underhanded methods to try and achieve their ends. Your kids might know other children who, despite knowing their work, still cheated in an exam for fear of not doing as well as they wanted to.

Assure your children that their hero is hurting as much as they are. He or she will not be proud of what they have done. Make sure your kids realize the person has done wrong and will probably be punished, but emphasize that an example has to be made for all. Let them know that the athlete will most likely be taking measures to reform and get their career and life back on track.