Drugs. It’s a difficult subject to navigate with your kids. Stories about drugs are all over the news, kids talk about them with each other, and popular media portray them as everything from liberating to devastating. So, how are you supposed to approach such a large and controversial topic with your children?
I talked to Erica Curtis, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist practicing in Santa Monica, about different techniques for engaging your kids in honest discussions about drug use. But I wanted to take a moment to clarify what this article is and isn’t before we dive in.
This article discusses how to talk to your kids about the subject of drugs and shows how you can help them build effective strategies for negotiating that part of their lives. It is not about intervention or how to talk to your kids if you suspect they are already using drugs.
Decide How You Feel About Drugs First
I’m not one to tell you whether you should or shouldn’t be using drugs, especially if you’re not breaking the law. But if your views are more lax than strict, you’ll need to factor this in when you talk to your kids. Not only will gauging your own position help you maintain credibility, it will also make you more comfortable approaching the subject and, in turn, make your kids more comfortable approaching you.
Erica Curtis touches on this:
It is useful for parents to clarify their own attitudes and beliefs about drugs so they can make more conscious decisions about how they will address the topic with their child. If a parent is uncomfortable with the topic or reluctant to share their own history of use, for example, the parent may inadvertently send the message “This topic isn’t okay to talk about” or “I can’t handle talking about this.” Bottom line, you want your kids to know they can talk to you about drugs when they need to, and you don’t want your own uncertainties or discomfort getting in the way of that.
Definitely draw on your own experiences if you have some. If not, do some research. It can be difficult to wade through all the disinformation that abounds, but one good place to start is MedlinePlus, a service from the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. They provide solid information on prescription, non-prescription, and illegal drugs.
Of course, even when you’ve clarified your own position, you’ll also have to balance your views and how much information you share against your child’s age and temperament.
Be Proactive, but Follow Your Child’s Lead
I’m a fan of presenting information to kids when they are ready for it rather than when I’m ready to give it. Open the discussion, but let them lead. Erica Curtis advises:
Kids learn best when information is presented at their level, when it is in context, and when it is relevant to them. Although we are all prone to doing it, long-winded lectures are not effective. Less is more and taking a child’s lead by listening closely to their questions and asking them more questions to tease out what they want to know, can help limit over-sharing on the part of the parent.
So how do you know when they’re ready? As their parent, you can gauge this better than any specific set of guidelines. Kids are different. Even at the same age, some kids are more sensitive or more mature. Of course, if you wait around for your kids to bring up the matter of drugs on their own, you may be waiting a long time. It pays to be proactive.
When it comes to discussing drugs, it is also important to be proactive in bringing up the topic. Some kids may have questions but may not feel comfortable asking. Some kids may simply grow up to get their information from media and their peers. Bringing up the topic of drugs proactively sends the message that you are open to talking about it.
Look for Teachable Moments
In addition to planned discussions, you can build conversations about drugs into the context of every-day activity by simply being on the lookout for appropriate times. With young kids, this is easier than you might think. Erica relates her own experience:
An easy way to bring up the topic is in context when you notice people who are smoking, for example. My four-year-old knows what smoking is; that people do it because chemicals in it make them feel good. He knows it also means that they are breathing smoke into their lungs and that can make their lungs turn black. He knows the chemicals and smoke can also make some people very sick, though not everyone. He knows this because I start pointing out people who were smoking. We noticed the yucky smell together. Then he started asking questions.
In fact, you probably already have a foundation for entering the discussion with little kids. At some point, your child has taken medication, even something as simple as cold medicine. You likely talked to them about medicines—how they shouldn’t take it on their own, how the right amount can help but too much can hurt, and so on. That can make a pretty good launching point for conversations about other drugs.
Older kids tend to clue in a little better to you using those teachable moments as points of instruction, but that doesn’t render them less effective. Here are the types of moments you can take advantage of:
- A story on the news about a drug bust, a new drug trend, new legislation, or a traffic accident where substance abuse is suspected.
- Rumors about kids at school using drugs
- When kids ask about your own experience with drugs (or, what it was like back in the day)
- When an adult has a bit too much to drink
- After viewing a movie or TV show where characters use drugs
It’s really no problem finding opportunities to talk about drug use. Just remember to go easy, avoid lectures, let them ask the questions, and above all, be honest.
Honesty can be uncomfortable, especially when it comes to a subject like drugs, but being truthful with your kids is your best bet for long-term success. This doesn’t mean you have talk about everything. You’ll have to use your discretion about what you include in your conversations with kids of different ages, for example.
Drugs can feel pretty good. That’s usually why people start using them. Some drugs are more harmful than others. You won’t instantly become addicted. You may not become addicted at all, but long-term effects are hard to predict. Yes, I tried several different drugs when I was your age. These are the kinds of things parents tend to waffle on a bit when talking to their kids.
As Erica points out:
At any age, it’s important to be honest about drugs. Adults tend to emphasize the negative side of drugs (for good reason), without remembering to also let kids know that people do drugs because they produce effects that people like (whether that is relaxing, feeling happy or silly, etc). Adults also tend to forget to mention that bad things don’t always happen or that they don’t always happen right away.
The pitfall here is that if you paint a simple picture for your kids that all drugs are bad all the time, period, you’re risking your long-term credibility. Kids may decide one day to have a drink or smoke a joint. It feels good, the effects wear off, and the kids are left thinking “well, that wasn’t as bad as my parents made it out to be. I wonder what else they were wrong about.” As Erica elaborates:
If these facts about drugs are not also made clear, then as kids get older, they’ll use their own observations to make up their minds about drugs: “Drugs aren’t THAT bad- they help you chill out” or “So-so use drugs and nothing bad has happened to him.” Just keep in mind [that] truth is much more effective than scare tactics. In fact, research suggests scare tactics don’t work.
While your feelings about and experience with drugs may be complex, you can also tie your discussions with older kids to the more concrete world of laws and rules. Take the time to investigate the laws and punishments involving drugs where you live, as well as the rules about drugs enforced by your kids’ schools and whatever other organizations they may be involved in. Bringing the real-world consequences of drug use into your conversations gives kids a framework on which they can hang their evolving beliefs.
Make Drug Use Less Likely to Happen
Why do kids try drugs in the first place? A lot of the time, the answer is simple experimentation. Perhaps their peers are using them; perhaps not. Kids are naturally curious and rebellious. They want to explore the things life has to offer, even (maybe especially) the dangerous things.
But sometimes drug use is a way of self-medicating. Drugs can alleviate stress and make communication and social interaction easier. That’s a powerful enticement for kids, who always tend to be at one awkward stage or another. Communication and awareness are the answers here.
It may not be true that eating together at the family table is enough to reduce the likelihood of drug use, as nice as that would be. However, spending more time with your kids and being more engaged in their daily lives carries some undeniable advantages. They will feel more comfortable talking to you when problems arise and you will be more likely to notice when something is off, even if they don’t talk to you.
It also gives you more time to plan strategy. If part of your job is educating your kids about drugs, the other part is providing them with the tools they need to make right decisions when it counts. Erica notes:
Older kids and teens need strategies. Teens who are going to parties, for example, can benefit from learning how to assess a situation before entering it. It’s much easier to leave a party before you walk in. Coach kids to check out the situation before going in. It is also useful to provide them a socially acceptable “out” when they are offered drugs. “My parents would KILL me” (whether or not this is true) can be a useful phrase. Or you can suggest they pretend like their “lame parents” keep texting them that it’s time to come home, thus giving them an excuse to leave.
As much as you’d like your kids to be able to hold their heads high and just say “no thanks,” sometimes an opportunity to save face makes things much easier. Giving your kids an out by being the people they can blame is a great technique and there are other excuses they can employ as well. Use an illness (“It makes my asthma kick in”) or potential drug testing (from their parents, coach, or boss), even if it isn’t true.
One last note while we’re on the subject of strategies. One of the most important things you can plan for is driving, or not driving as the case may be. Make the offer to your kids (and maybe even their friends) that should the situation ever arise, they can call you for a ride.
My message to my own son is that while he may get in some trouble for drinking (or smoking pot or whatever), it’s nothing compared to how much trouble he’d get into for making the decision to drive after that. Or to ride with someone else who was impaired. But if he called me for a ride, I’d bring everyone home safely and save the “talk” for the next day.
Don’t Panic if It Does Happen
We’ve been talking mostly about how to let your kids know about drugs and help them avoid using them. Talking to kids when you suspect they’re already using is a little outside the scope of this article, but if you do suspect it (or know it for sure), there are some important things to keep in mind:
- Be calm.
- Wait until they’re straight to talk to have a discussion.
- Save the punishment until you’ve figured out the extent of the problem.
- If they’ve come to you on their own or admitted their use honestly, show your appreciation. You don’t want to lose that.
- Get help if you need it. If it’s an emergency situation, call 911 or take them to the emergency room. If it isn’t an emergency, talk to your family doctor. They’ll have information about all kinds of local resources. They’ll also be able to refer you to a therapist or drug treatment facility if the situation warrants it.
- Most importantly, let them know you love them. And that that never goes away.