HOW DO I TALK TO MY KIDS ABOUT DRUGS?
Updated: Jul 21
In response to a community survey regarding priority topics for parents, Raising Resilience is hosting a Substance Abuse Prevention Panel Discussion.
>>>WHAT'S THE HARM?
>>>Thursday, November 14 @ 7pm
>>>Woodward Middle School in the library
As a precursor to the event, we are sharing Part I of a piece from featured panelist, Michael Dorsey, MA, LMHC. Part II will be shared as a follow up to the panel. We hope you can join us for this valuable discussion. The event is free, but requires registration: Information and Registration.
Part I: GET STARTED
No matter what you talk to your kids about, you want the conversation to be meaningful and effective.
When I say a talk should be meaningful >>> I mean that we want it to be a conversation worth having. If your life is too busy to talk every day, leave out the talks about who took my phone charger, not the ones about what kinds of drugs are floating around the school these days.
When I say “an effective conversation,” >>> I mean that we want actual communication to happen, not just some people saying some words. Information should be flying both ways. If you don’t think your kids will have something to teach you, you’re just wrong. You’re not talking if you’re not listening.
The most important part of talking about drugs is getting started. I know, you haven’t forgotten about having the drug talk, you’re just waiting for the right opportunity. Stop waiting.
FIRST - GET INFORMED
Our kids are thirsty for information and will soak up whatever kind comes their way. From birth to age twenty-something their brains are at their most absorbent, but they haven’t developed the capacity to sift away the dross.
If we don’t offer high quality information, they will ingest whatever information is available, with a resulting bias toward quantity rather than quality (“Everybody says…”). So, our first obligation in talking to our precious young about drugs is to inform ourselves. Don’t assume that what you think you know is either true or valuable. You, as an adult, are capable of recognizing when you are holding narrow, conventional, or outdated opinions dressed up as eternal truths.
Do some research. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you find yourself surprised and challenged by some of what you discover. Ideally, you’ll be intrigued and want to learn more. That’s exactly the reaction you want from your children, so now you’re in the right frame of mind to talk.
NEXT - AVOID CLICHES
Have you ever watched your kids’ eyes glaze over when you start to say something that you believe is really important?
What’s the next thing they say? “I know, I know, they told us that in school,” or “you’ve said that before.”
That probably means that you’ve dropped a needle and are repeating some cliché that even you wouldn’t take to heart if you listened to yourself. “Promise me you’ll never drink and drive. I don’t want you killed in a car crash.”
Of course you don’t, what a horrifying idea. But those aren’t your real, heart-felt words; those are rote phrases that could have been delivered by a pull toy when they were two years old, the same way they memorized the alphabet. This type of delivery lacks conviction. Nobody is committed to cliché.
Let’s look at the other side of that deadly dull conversation. How many times have you heard your teenager say, “You don’t know what high school (or life) is like these days.”? They’re doing the same thing, dropping a bomb with the sound of a wet firecracker.
If you really heard what they were saying, if they expressed what was in their hearts with a passion that arrested your attention, you’d say, “Whoa, wait a minute. You’re right. I don’t know what high school is like these days, and I desperately want to know. That’s why I sat down to talk to you. Why did I just roll my eyes and sigh?” We need to listen with everything we’ve got when the subject is important, or we will miss the content simply because the delivery is flawed.
THEN - SET THE TONE
So, how do you get your kids to listen? Here’s the rule: Don’t say anything you don’t mean, and don’t say anything you don’t believe.
Nothing can guarantee that they will hear you, but human beings are masterful at distinguishing the carotid throb of sincerity, or the faintest whiff of ripe manure. If your whole soul is in your words, they will know and they will care, no matter what they say to the contrary.
The next time your high schooler shouts, “I don’t care!” ask yourself why they deliver those particular words with so much passion. That kind of contradicts the words, doesn’t it? Your instinct is right: they care deeply. They dread that they might discover that some of their ideas on the subject are spongy at best. Let them know that you also care deeply about this subject and invite them to discuss it by letting them know that you know some things they don’t, while admitting frankly that you don’t know everything. Don’t be afraid of letting your feelings show.
Notice that I haven’t said anything so far about what to tell your children, focusing instead on how to engage. That’s because your words are wasted unless both sides are listening.
When it comes to what you will say, solid evidence is indispensable, although it is just the diving board for the discussion. Much is known, but more is not. Inform yourself well and I guarantee you will be startled by how much we have yet to learn.
NOW - ESTABLISH THE FACTS
Once you have some solid evidence to share, start the conversation by establishing together what the facts are.
Ask questions to discover what your kids already know or believe.
When you think they’re wrong, challenge them to show you some evidence for what they think.
Let them do the same right back at you.
Teens don’t have to rebel against their parents, but in a healthy family they will challenge them. Accept the challenge.
Here is a tiny introduction to some facts about drugs. Let’s talk about two drugs most families will encounter as their children move through high school: alcohol and marijuana.
Here is a fact that is often neglected in these family discussions: alcohol is a powerful and dangerous drug.
Our cultural prejudice is not to even treat it as a drug. We use the phrase “drugs and alcohol,” as though booze doesn’t quite belong to the same category. Professionals have been taught to use the phrase “alcohol and other drugs” instead, which reminds us that alcohol is a drug, but also that it occupies a peculiar position in our society. It is our societal “drug of choice,” loved and loathed with equal passion.
Drink is deep in our heritage and shows up in the form of unconscious shared beliefs, even if we come from a non-drinking family. That means that we all have a lot of ill-considered opinions that feel like facts ripe to be rooted out. You may be surprised to learn that deaths caused by alcohol in the US have consistently exceeded those caused by all other drugs combined. When I began to study the subject twenty years ago there was no competition, the ratio was about four to one. Largely because of the epidemic of opioid use, overdoses from illegal drugs are now within spitting distance of exceeding deaths from alcohol, which have remained relatively constant, but as of today alcohol is the champ.
Yet most people, when surveyed, believe that alcohol is relatively benign. That’s because of the lens through which we look at it. Most people who use alcohol do so with relative safety. In other words, it can be used by many or most of us and not cause lasting damage. That doesn’t justify the shibboleth that alcohol, often paired with marijuana, is a “soft” drug, as opposed to “hard” drugs like heroin and cocaine.
The most heavily hammered message to teens about alcohol is about the potential for fatal car accidents. This both results from and reinforces the idea that alcohol is only dangerous if misused in an obvious way. Here’s some good news: overall, alcohol related traffic fatalities have gone down by half in the last forty years. But let’s not plant the idea that if kids don’t drink and drive alcohol becomes a safe drug. Most of the deaths from alcohol are the result of diseases caused by long-term heavy drinking. An overdose from heroin, or a car crash from drunk driving, is vivid and simple, but that doesn’t mean those are the most likely harms to come from drug use. It is easy to make a poster about a sudden death. Everyone understands that as a tragic loss of potential. How do you convey the idea that millions of lives are shortened imperceptibly, or rendered sad and pointless by the wear and tear of routine drug use? See how this subject starts to twist and complicate once we start to use solid information?
Marijuana is if anything more confusing than alcohol. Since 1969, marijuana has been defined by US law as a Schedule I drug, meaning that it has no medical potential and a high risk for abuse.
Cocaine, in contrast, which is widely used in dentistry and other medical settings, only made it to schedule II, even though it is popularly seen as a more dangerous drug. An unintended consequence of this is that very little meaningful research has been done on marijuana over that time, because getting it and keeping the required paperwork wasn’t worth the bother to most scientists. That is beginning to change, and we can all be grateful for that.
Whether we like or hate the drug we can all be in favor of knowing more about it. Because of the new research, there is a lot of evidence that marijuana may be medically very useful indeed. This isn’t surprising, because marijuana contains over a hundred different substances called cannabinoids, and our bodies are peppered with cannabinoid receptors. As far as we know it is a coincidence that a family of plants produces substances chemically designed to fit like keys in these receptors, but it is a coincidence that is bound to be useful in therapies directed at these receptors. Up to now, though, all we have is a lot of tempting leads and thousands of anecdotes of miraculous cures and crushing disappointments from personal experimentation, along with some serious but inconclusive research.
With changes in our laws already on the books, and more to follow, the floodgates have opened to a wonderland of new information, and we’re all on the adventure together, like it or not. For the next twenty-five years and more, every one of us will be bombarded by confusing claims about the triumphs and failures of this drug, and we need to learn to sort them wisely.
If your teenagers make a claim you consider outlandish, don’t immediately press the scoff and dismiss button--ask them to convince you. Try to be genuinely willing to be convinced. But don’t give ground if in fact it turns out that they are spouting nonsense. You don’t have to contradict what they have said; rather, help them see where their reasoning is faulty.
The potential is there for this to be an exciting and revelatory conversation. Even if you don’t learn more about drugs, you will learn more about each other. Your understanding and appreciation of each other will deepen, and what could be better than that.
Stay tuned for Part II. Here’s a preview:
We’ve talked about how to engage and made it clear that if you base your discussion on establishing some facts you can carve out solid ground to have a mutually respectful and even enjoyable talk. Now we’re ready for the meat of the matter.
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