It’s a common dilemma for parents who have had their own struggles with addiction in the past, especially if those difficulties occurred prior to parenthood or so early in the child’s life that the child doesn’t remember the details. At a certain point, it becomes important to begin talking about the dangers of drug use and how best to handle difficult situations where a kid may be exposed to drugs or alcohol, or feel pressured or tempted to experiment with their use. Eventually, your child will ask: “Did you ever try drugs?”
Honesty in Child Rearing
Throughout the course of your child’s life, you will find that there is a balance between being completely transparent with your child and phrasing things in such a way that you are being honest but still protecting their innocence. That is to say, if you lie to your child, you will break their trust when they inevitably find out, and you will have a hard time trying to rebuild that trust, especially on the important issues like drug use and abuse.
But how do you find that line that allows you to be honest with your child without going overboard? Here are a few tips to help you:
- Keep it simple. Your child’s inquiries into your drug use does not require an epic essay even if that would only begin to touch on the beginning of your experience with drugs and alcohol.
- Avoid the implication that any level of use is safe or that you got lucky by surviving it. You can address the fact that you used drugs or alcohol without condoning it or creating a situation in which your child thinks, “Well, my dad did it and he survived, so I’ll probably be okay too.” Instead, you can simply answer the question by saying, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life that I would never want you to have to experience. Doing drugs ends up making everything harder. It never makes it easier, and I want your life to be as easy as it can be.”
- Be age-appropriate. A 12-year-old child’s ability to comprehend what it means to use drugs and alcohol, the associated risks, and/or your experience with substances and a 17-year-old teen’s ability to cognitively grasp the nuances are worlds apart. Level of understanding can be further impacted by an individual child’s development and cognizance. Take these into consideration as you decide what exactly you want to say to your child. For example, you don’t want to terrify your 12-year-old child with intense overdose details but your 17-year-old teen may benefit from understanding what can happen to someone in a drunk driving accident.
- Avoid graphic details. The problem with turning drug use and abuse into a scary monster that can devour your life whole is that this is not what most kids will experience the first few times they drink or get high. Though they may get sick if they overindulge, they will also likely experience what initially drew you to use drugs and alcohol: a sense of escape, feeling carefree, feeling accepted by friends who are also drinking and getting high, and fun. Demonizing drugs and alcohol can result in your child feeling like you completely missed the mark and overstated harm; as a result, they may end up getting in trouble with substances rather than staying away.
Talking to Kids about Substance Use and Abuse
You may have some solid ideas about what should and should not be said to kids about substance use based on your own experience, or you may feel like you had little guidance yourself and therefore don’t really know where to begin with your own children. Here are some tips to help you stay on track and relay the message that will be most helpful to your child:
- Ask for their thoughts. Don’t feel that you have to do all the talking when it comes to discussing drugs and alcohol. Find out what they know – or think they know – not only about your drug use but also what their friends are saying and doing. Ask if they have questions and then answer them thoughtfully.
- Do not avoid the topic. Throughout your child’s life, it is important to seize appropriate opportunities to discuss drug and alcohol use and why and how to avoid it. At 8 years old, you might see your child notice erratic behavior in a family member who is drinking at a family gathering or home in on something similar on TV. This is a good time to note that the person is under the influence, explain what that means, and then point out how silly they look and the dangers associated with it.
- Know this is not a one-time conversation. This conversation is so important that it must be had more than once. It’s okay if your kids become annoyed by it. They still hear you, and studies show that later on when you are not around, they will remember what you said.
- Give them a way out. If your child knows you are 100 percent against their use of drugs and alcohol, they may not want to tell you if they get into trouble while they are out with their friends. It is important that you create a way for them to get help in case they are in trouble. They can send you a text that says nothing but X to let you know to call them and say that you need them home; this way they can leave and save face with their friends or have you come pick them up.
How did you handle the issue of talking to your kids about your history with substance abuse? Do you feel like it worked well? What, if anything, would you do differently a second time around?