The message is out there: Parents are the No. 1 biggest influence on their children’s lives. And kids who talk with their parents about the risks are 50 percent less likely to drink or do drugs. Keep the lines of communication open. Take time to talk; take time to listen. No problem.
“Mom, did you ever get drunk or do drugs?”
Uh-oh. What do you say when they ask about your past? Should you tell the truth, avoid the subject, or dare to come up with a little white lie?
There’s no one right way to handle that conversation. It can be embarrassing, just like “the sex talk,” uncomfortable, shocking, painful and difficult. We hear you. If it hasn’t come up yet, think about how you’re going to answer the question when it does, and remember the most important thing is to focus on the kid who’s asking.
You care, and you want to help him or her benefit from your experience. It’s really not about you, your embarrassing stories or guilty feelings. Keep in mind you’re the adult in this conversation, even if you don’t always feel like a grown up.
They may be asking because they’re trying to make a decision of their own, or testing the waters to see how you will react, what the limits really are. Keep focus on them by starting off with, “Why do you ask?” and you might learn more about what they are thinking.
What if I did?
“Yes I did, but I don’t want you to.” If you do have drug or alcohol experience in your past and choose to talk about it, know that being honest is a big way to maintain your credibility and trust. Young people have a kind of built-in radar for deception, and chances are good they will know if you are lying-just like you know when they are.
But do be cautious, and “edit” yourself; you don’t have to go into a lot of detail or give more information than they need. Let them ask the questions. It’s OK to keep some things private. Kids understand the need for privacy, right?
You can still be honest and highlight the fact that the good times weren’t really worth going through the bad ones. If you got drunk and threw up in the car, if you were so high you lost your keys, if you got arrested, if you spent time in rehab or you are in recovery, you can tell them, and let your experience be a gift, a benefit to them. The bottom line is, you don’t want them to make the mistakes you did; you want them to make good choices; you want them to be safe.
What if I don’t want to talk about it?
If you choose not to talk about your experience, that is an acceptable response as well. Young people need privacy and can understand that you need it too, in the spirit of mutual respect. As long as you don’t avoid the conversation altogether and miss a teachable moment, you can reinforce your message that it is not OK for kids to drink or use drugs.
Keep in mind, though, that if you do have something to hide, you run the risk of having your kids find out later. A friend at a party might tell one of those embarrassing stories you’d rather forget, and expose you as a phony. Then you’re back to Square One and it’s a whole new conversation.
If you are still using drugs, or drinking to excess, and you think your children don’t know, you are probably mistaken. Please consider the impact of your actions on your family. Look at yourself through their eyes, and if you don’t like what you see-get some help.
What if I didn’t?
“No I didn’t, and I don’t think I missed anything.” If they ask, you can explain why you decided not to drink or use drugs-if it was faith-based or a health reason, or just a personal decision. And not having experience with drugs doesn’t mean you are ignorant about them. Remember, “Why do you ask?” and open the door for more conversation.
Parenting experts and counselors are divided over how to tell your kids about your past experiences. Relax. The most important thing is that you are talking. If the best you can do is, “I don’t know how to answer that question right now. Why do you ask?” that’s a start.
Here are some more tips for the conversation, modified from DrugfreeAZ.com:
1. THIS ISN’T ABOUT YOU. This isn’t about what you did or didn’t do. It’s about what your child is going to do or not do. So think about how your personal experiences might help steer them in a good direction.
2. EXPERTS DISAGREE. You know your kids better than anyone. Do they demand the facts or are they happy to just talk? If you choose not to tell the truth, how will they feel if your kids discover the real story?
3. THE WHOLE TRUTH? Try to avoid giving more information than your child asks for. This is not a courtroom; it’s a conversation. You don’t want to frighten them, glamorize your experience or give them extra reasons to question your authority.
4. SAY WHAT YOU MEAN TO SAY. Don’t beat about the bush; say “I don’t want you to use drugs.” Then give your reasons why. (“Drugs are dangerous, expensive, distracting…”)
5. YOU COULD SAY IT LIKE THIS: “I tried drugs because some kids I knew were experimenting, and I thought I needed to, to fit in.” OR “Drinking was a mistake I made when I was young. It made me do some dumb things. I love you too much to watch you repeat bad decisions I made.” OR “Drugs affect everyone differently. So even if drugs didn’t ruin my life, I’ve seen them ruin other people’s lives. And God forbid you should be one of those people.”
6. DON’T JUST TALK. LISTEN. Try to keep it a two-way conversation. Ask what they think. Ask if it’s a subject their friends talk about. And listen to the answers.
7. STAY CALM. Whatever happens, try not to raise your voice. If you do lose your temper, catch yourself. It’s okay to admit that these conversations aren’t easy for you, either. And if things aren’t going so well, suggest talking about it again another time.
8. GOOD LUCK. Yes, it’s difficult. You don’t want young people to hold your history up as some kind of a precedent to follow, or as a tool to use against you. You want to use your life experience to steer them in a good direction. So go ahead and answer the question, start the conversation. This isn’t about your past. This is about your child’s future.
The North Hawaii Drug-Free Coalition, a project of Five Mountains Hawaii, is a regional volunteer organization committed to developing strong, sustaining relationships for Healthy Communities Choosing to Live Drug Free. For more information, visit www.fivemountains.org/nhdfc.