PART II: HOW DO I TALK TO MY KIDS ABOUT DRUGS?
Updated: Jul 21
Today's article is the final piece of our current Substance Abuse Prevention Series. This is a continuation of the article we posted last week. You can read Part I here.
PART II: VALUES AND RULES
(In Part I) 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.
Every family, every parent, every child has to decide what to do with and about the facts. You have the right, as a parent, to establish rules and punishments for your kids. Your kids have the power to accept or evade those rules and sanctions. Many families develop a dynamic in which the parents serve as the cops, the enforcers, and the kids feel entitled, or even forced, to sneak around the law, following their own impulsive wishes and whims as long as they don’t get caught. Teenagers are hard at work forming conclusions about who they are and what they believe. Suppose your child forms the idea that she’s a bad person and can only have a good time by getting away with things that others disapprove of. If never forced to re-examine those beliefs, they can last a lifetime. As an addiction counselor I have worked with too many middle-aged people who still think of themselves as free-spirited rebels who, when challenged, have no idea what they’re rebelling against.
A healthier alternative is a relationship based not on rules but on values. If our kids have the same values we do, the rules will be self-evident. Kids are never too young for us to talk to them about drugs. What is the appropriate way to talk to a four-year-old on the subject? Say, “I love you and I will always do my best to keep you safe and strong.” That’s how you want them to feel about themselves when they’re old enough to carry that idea within. And when the time comes for them to make wise decisions about where drugs will fit in their lives, the first thought you want them to have is: How will this affect my loved ones, and can I do this and be safe and strong. With that thought ringing in their hearts like a bell, what chance is there that they will make calamitous decisions?
We’ve already seen that it’s not always easy to know what the facts are when it comes to drugs and drug use. Values are even harder to boil down to their sweet essence, but this is the essential work of families, the breathing soul of parenting. We don’t want our kids to clone us, replicate our lives, think and feel just as we do, even if we think we’ve been exemplary humans and led great lives. We want them to go beyond us, thinking and dreaming things we never imagined, experiencing things we couldn’t. The less we burden them with the need to think and be like us, the better the chance they will be fully realized humans. So as much as we possibly can we guide rather than direct, suggest rather than demand, trust in preference to verifying. Even when a subject is crucial we need to privilege our hopes over our fears when we decide what we want to say.
Here comes the most painful part. None of us has, or is likely to, always live up to those ideals. We won’t talk to our kids about drugs early enough, or often enough, or well enough. We may get lucky, and our kids escape into life with just a few bruises, as many of us did. We remember nursing a horrible hangover in secret and assume, because they never said anything, that our parents were oblivious. Or we went through a brief and terrifying six-month cocaine binge that left us ever after wondering, What was I thinking? Up to now I’ve encouraged a pretty open script when it comes to discussing drug use. I want every parent to assess their own kids when it comes to honesty, intelligence, the ability to make good decisions, and act accordingly. And I want you to be true to your own values, not mine. But every parent knows that there comes a time when you have to intervene. When your kids were learning to walk you let them fall down on the carpet, but not down the front steps.
As a counselor, I often say that my enemy is not drugs, or drug use. My enemy is addiction. There is no clear borderline where addiction begins, but once you enter the valley of the shadow you gradually lose your ability to make decisions to use or not to use. Developing brains are more easily addicted than adult brains. There is no question, then, that the ideal choice for teenagers is no drug use at all. But for all the reasons stated above, the ideal also requires that our kids come to that decision on their own, not by parental fiat. We don’t live in an ideal world. I challenge you to come as close as you dare to meeting the ideal. But I also encourage you to be realistic about your own situation. Is there addiction in the family? Is it possible you yourself have struggled with addiction or wondered whether you are addicted to something? Is your child impulsive, lonely, angry, eager to please? These, and a lot of other factors, can give you very good reasons to be more prescriptive or restrictive in how you talk to your kids on this subject. Don’t let me or anyone else shame you out of protecting your children the best you know how. If you don’t think your kids have good enough values, by all means establish rules. If you find it impossible to establish a healthy two-way dialogue, don’t stop talking and listening, but call for backup.
In the end, you can’t talk about drug use in a useful way if you don’t talk about addiction, and addiction has the potential to trump everything I’ve said up to now about open-ended dialogue. It is also one more subject on which our current state of knowledge is terrifyingly inadequate. The good news, though, is that addiction develops over time. It isn’t like a light switch, one day you’re not addicted and the next you are. Even if it has gotten its hooks in, the sooner it is identified and treated the better the odds are of a full remission.
If we are comfortable, alert and open in discussing the danger of addiction, and are willing to debate, not dictate, what we think it means, there is no reason why our children can’t incorporate that information into wise decisions about how to handle their own potential drug use.
Drugs and drug use are facts of life. Remember, even if our own kids choose to abstain from all drug use, they will have friends who use. They not only have to make decisions for themselves, they have to figure out how to react to the drug use of other people they care about. Do you want them to shun a friend who is struggling with hard choices, or help them realize they can make better ones? And don’t you want to be someone they can turn to when they’re trying to answer those questions?
BACK TO VALUES
I hope that if I have left you with only one idea, it is that there is no one right way to manage this complex subject. Every family has to make decisions based on their own values and supported by the best facts available. Our knowledge is increasing every day, but that also means that not everything we thought we knew is correct. There is no guarantee of a happy ending, but the best way to increase the likelihood of success is to talk openly with your kids. Let them know you’re not afraid of the subject, and that you have strong opinions but an open mind. You have to be open to changing your mind if you want them to be willing to change theirs. It’s never too early to start, and you’ll never be done, so let’s learn to enjoy the ride.
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