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How to talk to your kids about alcohol and drugs

I’m often asked what the best approach is to talking to kids about the dangers of substance use and addiction. My experience is there is no one optimal strategy and my immediate response when asked is:

It depends on what you’re hoping for.

Is your goal to ensure that your teenager never tries marijuana, alcohol, or tobacco products before the legal age? If so, I sincerely wish you luck, but I’m honestly not aware of a strategy that guarantees this without stunting their development. Adolescence is a time of developing an identity and trial and error decision making.

It’s not that I condone underage use – far from it. It’s more that I’ve seen controlling parenting designed only for prevention as having harmful effects.

Or are you looking to educate your kids and to establish open and honest communication about the choices they make?

I’m hoping that’s what you want and if that’s the case, you have a million things to talk about beyond the risks of substances. You have talks about sexual consent, birth control, condoms and STD prevention. You have talks about bullying and cyber stalking. You’ll be talking about our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters and diversity and isms and homophobia and prejudice.

You’ll have discussions about a million pitfalls people find themselves in and ideally, you’ll be super honest about your experiences and the bad decisions you made once upon a time (or last week).

See, as long as you have the facts, there’s no right or wrong approach. Be yourself.  Inform them without lecturing them. Make it clear that you believe in their capacity for excellent decision making.

Teach them how to do a risk/benefit analysis. It’s as simple as weighing the pros and cons of a given choice. Teach them to think critically and not to simply accept what’s told to them. Tell them it’s always ok to wait and to talk to you before they make a choice.

And no matter what, please, please, please, tell your kids that they can always call you – no matter what – no matter how much trouble they’re in or how bad things are.

Tell them to never get into a car of someone who has been drinking or drugging. Tell them you’ll come get them day or night and that they won’t be in trouble for it.

Tell them the stories you don’t like to tell about your family and extended family. Does mental illness, addiction, self-harm, or eating disorders run in your family? Talk to them about genetic predisposition and about the lives of people they know. Tell them why no one talks about grandpa on mom’s side.

Protecting teenagers from truth in this day and age just doesn’t make any sense to me.

When I’m given the opportunity to speak to kids, I answer their questions in exactly the manner that I would an adult. They’re curious and they want to know everything from what it feels like to do a particular drug all the way up to why some people become addicted and others don’t.

I tell them I’ve known and served a lot of people in addiction and in addiction recovery. I’ll explain that these are very diverse, intelligent, and talented folks. Then I’ll ask the teens to consider how many of them intended to become addicted?

Please don’t worry about finding the right words. If you don’t have all the facts, Google does. What we need is for more parents to be actively involved and maintaining open communication with their kids.

Think of it this way: chances are, the more involved you are – the less work folks like me have to do

I’m a trauma specialist and addictions counselor

Go hug your kids.

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