Or smoke? Or get drunk?
Uhhhh… Um. …. Er.
Somehow, even though we may work hard to offer our kids solid information about risky behaviours so they can make healthy choices, parents find themselves unprepared for these questions.It’s kind of funny actually, because asking these kinds of questions is a totally natural impulse from our kids. We set ourselves up as role models. We offer them information. We deliver consequences when they make mistakes, praise and rewards when they act in appropriate ways.
So when they ask us what we did as kids, we shouldn’t be surprised. We should be prepared.
When I offer workshops on the things parents of young children can do to help their kids avoid problems with high-risk activities later on, I always address this question. And though the details of the answers may be different from family to family and parent to parents, the advice I give is always the same: this question has much more to do with your child’s future than your past.
This is no time for details, whether hilarious or horrifying. They need guidance for their future choices, particularly when they are under pressure from friends to experiment with something new.
Many parents are caught between wanting to be frank, but realize their own teenage experiences won’t exactly play out like a cautionary tale. You may well have turned out pretty much OK, after all. Furthermore, research suggests that 47% of today’s parents of kids under 18 report misusing drugs and alcohol in their own youth, so this is a pretty common problem. And while there is no magic formula for responding, I’d offer the following guidelines to consider:
- if you never experimented with drugs/ alcohol/ smoking, they may not believe you. Explain why you you made those choices and discuss how you handled pressure from friends, what you did at parties when others indulged and how your friends reacted to your decisions.
- if you did use drugs/ alcohol/ cigarettes, avoid using phrases like “I made a mistake.” We often tell our children that mistakes are part of growing up, and a way to learn. Your kid may think that if you made those mistakes and ended up OK, they should be able to try them as well. Pediatrics professor Dr. Janet Williams offers one possible response in this New York Times article: “If the way it’s presented is, ‘This is risky, and I hope that you don’t have to touch the hot stove to find out you get burned,’ they don’t have to take the same chance.”
- be aware that your stories can come back to haunt you (“aren’t you being kind of hypocritical, Mom?” or “I’m not as stupid as you were!” or “you did it, so why can’t I?”). Choose a response that shows real risk, as in “that was really stupid of me. I could have been date raped/ beaten up/ in a car with a drunk driver, etc.” This is when I offer the few truly tragic and terrible stories of people I knew who died, were assaulted, overdosed or developed life-altering addictions.
- tell them we know a lot more today than we did back then about how harmful smoking, drugs and alcohol are. For example, we know that the potency of marijuana available on the street jumped 175% between 1992 and 2006. We also know that kids who begin drinking at age 15 are four times more likely to develop a drinking problem than kids who begin drinking at 21. We also know that since the brain continues to develop until 24 or 25, drug use may have permanent a impact on their neurobiology.
- if you ever had an addiction problem, don’t hide this from your children. They probably already know about it — kids have a way of learning family secrets and they will appreciate your candour. Tell them how hard you had to work to recover, and what you lost along the way: trust, relationships, months or years of your life, health issues, money, etc. Point out celebrities whose careers have been publicly derailed by addiction, as well as those who have died because of it.
- be careful about assumptions that getting drunk or wasted is a necessary and enjoyable part of being young. A dad at one of my workshops told me that he wants his children to enjoy the same kind of college parties he remembers so fondly. My standard response to this relatively common observation is that those are warm memories because he came through them OK. They are safely in the past and the outcome is known. But there is never any guarantee that his children will make it through as safely as he did.
- keep them talking. Don’t be so hardcore that they can’t come to you to discuss a bad experience, or being offered drugs or alcohol. And always let them know they can call you any time of day or night to come get them out of a bad situation, no questions asked (for the moment). The questions can come the next morning, when everyone is safely home.
- focus on the positive. If they are athletes, explain how smoking, drugs or alcohol will impair their performance. If they take pride in their academic achievements, explain how brain cells may be killed off by pot use or binge drinking. Tell them you have confidence in them.