The questions many parents dread begin as early as middle school: Did you do drugs when you were in school? Did you drink when you were a teenager?
Parents’ natural reaction is often to clam up and try to hide youthful misdeeds. But there are ways to use stories about your own underage drinking, reckless driving or drug use to teach teens important lessons about health and safety. It requires listening carefully to what teens are asking and staying focused on what they need at the time.
One of the most common mistakes parents make is to let their own past missteps prevent them from talking with their teens at all, says Marcia Lee Taylor, president of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, a New York nonprofit. Children who learn a lot at home about the dangers of drugs and alcohol are much less likely to use them, she says.
Other parents err at the other extreme and spill too many details, says Madeline Levine, San Francisco, author of “Teach Your Children Well.” Saying, “ ‘I took LSD and ecstasy and this kind of pot and that kind of pot’ gives it a specificity.” Some teens may read that as a green light to try drugs themselves, Dr. Levine says.
Lynn Zakeri of Northfield, Ill., a clinical therapist who works with adolescents and young adults, says she sees this pattern in her office a lot. “Kids say, ‘My mom did that, or my dad did that, and they turned out OK, so it must be OK,’ ” she says. When parents aren’t careful about how they tell stories, “the kids see it as, ‘My dad was a partier. He was a cool guy,’ and they say it with a smile.”
Parents should avoid either glorifying past adventures or overemphasizing the risks, says Wendie Lubic, an instructor for the Parent Encouragement Program, a Kensington, Md., parent-training nonprofit. “Limit your message to the important points you want to get across,” she says.
Wayne Bland was riding with a teenage friend years ago when both had been drinking. The friend took a curve too fast. Their car nearly crashed onto a roadway more than 100 feet below. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, this is it. This is how we’re going to go out,’ ” he recalls.
Mr. Bland, a Charlotte, N.C., investment adviser, has told the story to his five sons, 15 through 28, adding, “one simple mistake could have cost my life, and if that had happened, none of you guys would be here,” he says. His son Justin, 17, says the story “taught me not to do stupid things while driving.”
Howard Savage told his two daughters how staying up late smoking marijuana as a college sophomore made him unable to pay attention in class the next day—“and that was pretty much the last time I ever smoked pot,” says Dr. Savage, a Takoma Park, Md., physician. He also described the profound grief and sense of loss he felt after his best friend in medical school died from a narcotics overdose. “It was the worst period of my life,” he says.
His daughter Anna, 20, a college junior, says the stories made it clear to her that she could ask him questions about drugs, and kept her away from many of the drugs students use on campus. “Seeing the pain in his eyes over his friend’s death really humanized the dangers,” Anna says.
Having warm, supportive relationships with parents is linked in research to lower drug and alcohol use by teens.
Jenna Weinerman says hearing her mother Randi’s stories about drinking in her teens drove home some lessons. “I was a little bit of a rebel,” says Randi, of Voorhees, N.J. But she made sure the girls knew she regretted her behavior and wished she’d worked harder in school and attended college.
Jenna says those conversations persuaded her to avoid drugs, to drink sparingly and to set ambitious goals. “I’m 31 now, and so much better for having been told the truth,” says Jenna, a marketing director in New York.
Different teens are looking for different things when they ask parents about drugs or alcohol, Dr. Levine says. “Your job is to figure out what is it that your kid really wants to know.” Is he feeling pressured by peers to try pot or other drugs? Is she worried about getting in trouble at parties with alcohol? Or is your teen just curious about how it feels to use them?
Notice how your child responds to your answers and tailor your response accordingly. Avoid lecturing or making threats.
Parents who didn’t use drugs or alcohol as teens should be honest too, explaining their reasons without moralizing. Either way, the focus of the conversation should be on helping the adolescent make safe, healthy choices amid the pressures and questions they face.
Sharing facts about drugs and alcohol can be helpful to teens. Adolescents often believe “everybody does it,” when National Institutes of Health data on high-school seniors show 35.6% used marijuana in the previous year, 55.6% used alcohol and 14.3% used illicit drugs other than weed. Teens can benefit from learning how vulnerable their brains are to lasting damage from early alcohol and drug use, and the potential consequences if they get arrested for it.
Keeping the conversation calm and casual will encourage your child to continue talking with you about the topic.
Heidi Wicker’s 12-year-old son is nearing the age at which she began sneaking out of the house in middle school and drinking. Ms. Wicker, of Flower Mound, Texas, later settled down and graduated from college with honors.
Ms. Wicker has already begun telling her son she made some early mistakes and learned from them. “That’s what I hope my kids take from my poor decisions,” she says. “It’s never too late to make the right choice.”