This will be a very long blog, because it includes a huge portion of Chapter Eight from the book, Positive Discipline for Parenting in Recovery by Jane Nelsen, Riki Intner, and Jane Nelsen. Since we just did a podcast on this book, I thought you might find it helpful to have this section on talking with kids about drugs—whether or not you are in recovery.
Communicate with Kids about Drugs
Recovering parents know first hand the realities and dangers of using drugs and alcohol. The last thing they want is for their kids to go through the living hell that they went through. They want to break the cycle of addiction.
The pressure of that responsibility and the fear that your kids are at a high risk could motivate you to over react in counterproductive ways. You may be tempted to make sure your kids don't even start using drugs by employing parenting methods that are extremely controlling. But the more you attempt to control your kids, the less effective you are. It is equally ineffective to ignore or neglect dealing with your kids about drugs. Going into denial and pretending drugs don't exist is more devastating to young people than any over-reactive control measures you might take.
The Four Essentials for
Effective Communication about Drugs
You help your kids learn about drugs and their uses and possible abuses through communication that is honest, informative, open and non-judgmental.
- By honest, we mean "telling it like it is." If you have a feeling or a belief, it is important to share it as your opinion, but not as the only way to look at things. (Review chapter two, on emotional honesty, at this point.) Some parents hesitate to talk about their own problems with drugs for fear that it will lower the kids' opinion of them or give the kids ideas. We've discovered that honesty opens up real communication. Kids don't have to worry about or try to hide their own imperfections when they know their parents are real people who have made their share of mistakes
- The word informative means that the information you share is accurate and not just your opinion. (Use the web for up to the minute information about drugs and their effects. You’ll find many different opinions, which makes for good discussions with your children.) Telling kids that if they try drugs they'll become an addict (or other such threats) is a way of losing your credibility. The first time kids try drugs and nothing bad happens, they often decide their parents didn't know what they were talking about. Scare tactics with kids may be effective to stop them from using drugs when they are young, but once they become pre-adolescents or teenagers, they have the opposite effect. Some kids feel obligated to prove how "stupid" and "wrong" adults are. When kids get accurate information, it helps them consider the choices they are making and what the possible consequences of their choices might be.
- The phrase open communication means that you invite discussion as opposed to shutting it off. People to whom others feel comfortable talking are usually non-critical and not controlling. They seem to care what others think, even if they don’t see it the same way. They feel free to tell others their own opinion without expecting conformity.
- By nonjudgmental we mean not seeing issues as "right" or "wrong." Nothing closes down communication quicker than talking to someone who always has to be right. No one likes to be told he or she is wrong or stupid. It helps curb your judgmental tendencies when you ask questions from sincere curiosity and then listen to draw your kids out about what they think.
We cannot provide a script of exactly what to say when talking to kids about drugs. The important thing is to establish a close relationship where there are opportunities for continued dialogue and growth. It is much easier to establish close relationships when you understand about separate realities.1
We have stressed many times in this book that it's not only what happens to people that is important but also what they decide about it. Separate realties explain why each person involved in a situation may interpret the situation differently and make different decisions. The separate reality of each of your kids will affect his or her separate decision about drugs.
. . .
In the following dialogues, some of the parents followed our four guidelines of honesty, information, openness, and a nonjudgmental attitude. Others did not. Notice the varying results of their choices.
Talking to Pre-School Children about Drugs
The first time toddlers get sick and need medicine can be the beginning of their "drug education." The following dialogue demonstrates how a parent uses this opportunity to teach some important messages about drugs.
Toddler: (with runny nose and flushed cheeks) Owwie, Mommy. My throat hurts.
Mom: Let's take your temperature and see if you have a fever. You look sick to me. Yup, you have a fever and we need to get your fever down. We'll get you a children's aspirin and a glass of orange juice for your hurt throat. Then we'll sit on the couch and read stories together so you can rest. When we don't feel well, there are a lot of different things we can do to feel better. Sometimes we need an aspirin, sometimes a nap, and sometimes we might need to check with the doctor. We'll check your temperature later to see if this is helping.
Toddler: Can I have a lot of ice in my orange juice, Mommy?
Mom: Sure, sweetie. Now let's go to the cabinet and get you an aspirin. Remember, aspirin is something that Moms get if their little girls and boys need them and not something for you to take. Too many aspirin could make you very sick. That's why we keep them in a safe place.
This mother is beginning to give information about drugs. She is not saying drugs will make you better or that drugs are the only way to fix a problem. She doesn't want to start her child in the habit of thinking that pills are the only answer. She assures her child they can help, but too many could be dangerous. The important thing is to teach kids that there are some drugs (medication) that may help us get better, and that there are many ways we can heal which do not call for drugs.
At the same time, it's important for parents to watch their chemical intake and model what they say. At this age, kids are great observers and copy what parents do. If Mom or Dad take a nap or walk to feel better as opposed to taking a pill, the child registers that message.
Talking to Toddlers about
Family Members Who Abuse Drugs
You may need to talk to preschoolers about relatives who are acting different because they are drunk or under the influence of a drug. Instead of saying things like, "Grandma is sick today," or "Daddy doesn't feel well," it is important to be honest and use words that say what is happening.
Four year old: Why does Grandma act so funny when we visit?
Dad: Grandma has had too much alcohol to drink and she is drunk. Sometimes people do things that are not good for them, and Grandma is doing that right now. Are you scared of Grandma?
Four year old: I think Grandma is funny.
Dad: Grandma may be acting funny, but it's not healthy for Grandma to drink so much and I wish she wouldn't do that.
As children get older and spend more time away from the family, there are some new messages about drugs you want to make sure they get.
Talking to Children Ages Five to Ten about Drugs
The five to ten age group needs preparation for what could happen to them when they are "out in the world" away from their families. You want to encourage them to question information and think about what they are doing instead of going along. At this age, kids usually think in black and white terms, tend to agree with adult warnings, and become very opinionated about what they have accepted. You help prepare them for the future when you create open communication by asking questions that help them learn how to think instead of telling them what to think.
Many kids are approached to use drugs at school in the primary grades. Even at this early age, they may be encouraged to try or buy drugs. Kids need skills to deal with people who tell them drugs are good for them. Role-playing is a fun way to teach skills. Ask kids to think of some things they could do or say when they are approached to try or buy drugs. Then role-play with them so they can practice their ideas.
Sample Dialogue with a Nine-Year-Old
Here’s a sample of how to talk to a child about drugs at school.
Mom: I got the school paper home and there was an article about some kids who were caught selling drugs at your school. Are you aware of that?
Son: Yeah, Mom. Kids are always trying to get us to buy stuff.
Mom: Has anyone ever approached you?
Son: Sure, but I say "No way!"
Mom: I'm sure glad to hear that. I feel sad and scared to think that you have to deal with that at your age. What do you think about drugs?
Son: I think they're stupid and I'm never going to take any. One of our teachers told us about a kid who licked some stickers and they had PCP on them. The kid almost died. I don't want anything like that happen to me.
Mom: I'm sorry, honey, that there are people in the world who would try to talk you into doing something dangerous for you, but I'm so glad to know you care enough about yourself not to risk hurting yourself. I feel much better now that we talked.
Look for the Teaching Moments
You can encourage open communication with kids in this five to ten age group by helping them question media messages. Discuss TV commercials and other advertising with them. Sometimes it helps just to bring to their conscious awareness how they are being bombarded with "do drug" messages, including prescription drugs to modify or "fix" feelings.
Dialogue with a Seven-Year-Old
A parent was watching TV with his son one night. Every commercial was for some kind of sleep, cold, fever or pain remedy, anti-depressant drugs, along with the beer commercials. Dad noticed his son humming the commercials and repeating the dialogue. He started to think about how much TV his son watched and how unconscious his son was about the messages he was getting. He decided to talk about this.
Dad: I notice you've memorized all the commercials. Do you ever think about what they are saying?
Son: What do you mean, Dad?
Dad: While I've been sitting here with you we've had about twenty people tell us if we can't sleep, have a sniffle, an ache or a pain, or feel sad, we should take some kind of a pill. Even the beer commercials are telling us if we drink beer we'll have friends, have fun, look good and enjoy life more. I feel angry when I listen to this.
Son: Why are you angry, Dad?
Dad: Because I think you might believe all this stuff, instead of realizing that this is an ad designed to talk people into buying things. I don't think we have to take a pill if we can't sleep. Sometimes we have a lot on our mind or we're just not tired and that's okay. We'll probably catch up on our sleep another night if we are tired enough. And the people I see who drink beer act rude and impolite. Some of them don't know how to have any fun unless they get high. We don't need to drink to have fun.
Son: Dad, I don't believe all that stuff on TV.
Dad: I'm glad to hear that, but I really want you to start thinking about what you are hearing and remember that commercials are meant to get people to buy things and not necessarily help people feel better.
You also have the opportunity to practice honesty by talking about your own drug use or that of another parent. The more you use drug-specific language (such as "pot," "crack," "loaded," or "wasted") the more prepared your children are to make sense out of what’s happening in their world, as the following story shows.
Kids this age can be extremely curious and open to learning. In the following dialogue, one which might seem very scary to some of you reading this book, an eight and a ten-year-old demonstrated their curiosity and ended up with a lot of information about drugs.
Honesty Satisfies Curiosity
Zoe (eight) and Christopher (ten0, had just completed a unit on drug education at school. Coincidentally, their Aunt Joanne came to visit from back East. The kids knew she had taken a lot of drugs in the 60's and they wanted to ask her all about her experiences. They wanted to know what Joanne took, how it felt, what was the effect, whether she still used drugs, and if not, why and how did she stop.
Joanne answered their questions honestly and didn't glorify or downgrade her experience. It was clear that she was speaking about how it was for her, not how it was for everyone. Joanne practiced honesty, and openness while giving a lot of information in a non-judgmental way.
Joanne: I'm surprised that you kids are asking these questions, because you're so young. Do people talk about drugs in your school?
Christopher: Yeah, kids use drugs in our school. Sometimes they try to give us drugs or sell them.
Joanne: What kind of drugs are kids giving you?
Christopher: Lots of kids smoke marijuana and sometimes they have PCP. One kid in our school has a lot of different kinds of pills to try. Did you use any of those drugs?
Joanne: I used marijuana, hash, speed, acid and mushrooms.
Zoe: What does it feel like to get high on Marijuana?
Joanne: For me, marijuana heightened my awareness, but it also made me tired. I always got hungry and felt like I wanted to eat. It was strange in a way, because when I was high on marijuana I had a clearer perspective, but at the same time, it slowed me down a lot. When I first started using marijuana, I spent a lot of time talking about my new awareness and how different things were.
Zoe: Where did you get marijuana, Aunt Joanne?
Joanne: In the 60's it was easy. My friends brought it back from California. Later some of them started saving the seeds and grew their own marijuana. Some of my friends traveled to Mexico, Afghanistan and Turkey and they would bring drugs back from those places.
Christopher: Where did you use it?
Joanne: I'm a very social person and I only used drugs in social situations, like at parties. Everyone in our generation was down on alcohol and we all thought marijuana was better than alcohol. We saw it as a consciousness-raising, mind-expanding thing. My friends never got addicted, but lots of people did.
Zoe: Do you still use it or have you stopped?
Joanne: I used marijuana off and on all through college and a few years after college, but only occasionally. If I was at a party and someone had some, I would have a little. We would share a joint between four or five people. I had a rule for myself that I would never spend money on drugs, so the only time I tried them was if someone else had them. After awhile, drugs got more expensive and harder to find. People started buying drugs from strangers and we weren't sure what was mixed in with the marijuana. That got scary, because some people would mix marijuana with dangerous materials to make it look like more. The drug didn't work the same either when it was less pure.
Christopher: Is that why you stopped?
Joanne: I got tired of it. You don't get the same experience after you use a drug for awhile. I built up tolerance and had to smoke too much to get high, and still didn't feel as good as it did at first. I realized it was a waste of time to sit around smoking dope, so I quit. I wanted to enjoy life. I knew people who started using marijuana for a different reason. They didn't want to feel their feelings. They started using the drug all the time to avoid feeling. They stopped dealing with their problems and used drugs instead. I never used drugs for that reason.
Zoe: Why did you use drugs?
Joanne: All the drugs I used were to expand my mind and create a different consciousness. My use was only experimental. When I was done experimenting that was it for me.
Christopher: Did you ever get addicted to any of the drugs you used? In school they tell us that drugs are dangerous because we might start off experimenting and then get addicted.
Joanne: I think what leads to addiction is denial of your feelings and a lack of information. The only drug I ever became hooked on was tobacco. I never had a fear I would be hooked on any drug because I knew drugs were addictive, so I used them socially or experimentally, but never regularly. I didn't know tobacco was addictive, so I didn't pay attention to how many cigarettes I smoked. Before I knew it, I was hooked.
Joanne went on to answer the kids' questions about other drug use with the same style of openness and honesty. When they asked her if she knew anyone who was an addict, Joanne continued, "I have a friend who became addicted to hash and alcohol. He wanted to slow down and numb out. I hated those drugs for the same reasons he liked them.
"The one drug none of us ever wanted to use was heroin. I think that was partly because you used a needle and put the drug straight into your blood stream. Also, we believed it was highly addictive. When you start getting into drugs, you hear about heroin and all the horror stories, how expensive it is, how people sell everything they have, and lose their dignity and self-respect. We heard these stories from people who used drugs, so if they were saying it's dangerous, we believed them."
Christopher: Our teacher told us that if we used cocaine only one time, we would be addicted. Do you think that's true, Aunt Joanne?
Joanne: The people I know who have become addicted have desperation. They are looking for something to take away the pain and stop feeling. I was never afraid of an addiction because I never wanted more than an adventure and a new experience. How about if we go out for a walk? That's about it for me on drugs for one day.
Zoe and Christopher said, "Thanks, Aunt Joanne. That was really interesting."
Christopher and Zoe didn't run out and experiment with drugs. Neither of them had any interest in using drugs, just a lot of curiosity for information about them. We can only guess at what they were deciding about what was presented to them.
As they grew up, Zoe went through a period of experimentation and social use of drugs. Christopher's approach seemed to be more of an all or nothing style. As a teen, he used marijuana daily for a summer and then stopped completely. In college he experimented with alcohol for a few weeks and then decided it was more fun to go to classes alert than hung over, so he quit drinking large quantities of alcohol and found pleasure in trying out foreign beer on occasion.
We have talked to kids who said they made better decisions when they were given honest information. They tell us they discount adults who are moralistic and make statements they don't believe. As one teenager said, "Why should we believe adults who told us we would get sick if we didn't eat our vegetables? We learned to discount those statements. We tend to discount most of the things they say about drugs, too."
Talking to Early Adolescents Ages Eleven to Fourteen
With kids eleven to fourteen, it is even more important to communicate by asking instead of telling. Kids this age do not respond well to orders. In fact if you would like to invite your kids to use drugs, you might just as well tell them, "Don't do drugs. If I find out you have, you'll be grounded." Too many adolescents see this as an invitation to a power struggle where their only choice is to win or to lose. They want to win without getting punished. They go "underground" so they won't get grounded.
At this age, nonjudgmental communication works best. A young teenage girl who was sent to therapy because of her drug use told her counselor: "Sometimes adults act so stupid. You would think they want kids to use drugs! They're always telling us, 'don't do drugs!' Don't they know that only makes us want to do them more?"
Her counselor asked, "What would you recommend parents who are worried about drugs tell their kids?"
She responded without hesitation. "I wish they would have told me that drugs could be dangerous and that they could hurt me. That would have helped a lot more."
Her counselor asked, "Didn't they tell you that?"
She looked surprised and said, "Yes, but it sounded more like a threat than information."
Overreacting from fear is not helpful to kids. In the next story, you’ll see how Art's fears, based on his past drug experience, drove a wedge between him and his daughter. Art was unable to trust her because he was so sure she was out doing what he used to do at her age. He made a mistaken assumption that his daughter was exactly the same as he was as a teen.
Art went into recovery when his daughter Kim was nine years old. Kim attended Alateen meetings and learned a lot about chemical abuse. At this age she became clear that she was never going to use mood-altering chemicals.
Art was comfortable talking to his daughter about his using days and about his recovery and felt certain that Kim would never want to use chemicals. This began to change when Kim got into Junior High. Art started to feel scared. Kim was in a larger world now. She was making new friends and getting involved in school activities.
Art started to lose faith in his daughter and act out his scared feelings. He questioned Kim about what she was doing and who she was seeing. At first Kim told her Dad about her new friends. When he began criticizing them and suggesting that she not hang out with them, Kim began closing down and talked only if she were pressed.
Art felt Kim pulling away. This scared him even more, so he questioned her more. One day Kim was late coming home from school. When she walked in the door Art began his harangue. "Where have you been? Let me look at your eyes. Have you been smoking pot?"
"What are you talking about?" his daughter asked. "Will you get off my back? I told you I don't smoke pot. I probably should since you already think that I do."
"I know those kids you hang out with smoke pot. Several people have seen them," her Dad retorted.
"Just leave me alone," Kim screamed, and ran to her room and slammed the door.
Art wasn't respectful of his daughter. He didn't like what was happening and decided to get help. He found a counselor who was knowledgeable about drugs and teenagers. Art was able to maintain respect and act responsibly instead of fearfully with Kim when he learned more about drug use.
Not everyone who uses drugs becomes dependent. Some kids may choose abstinence. Others may choose to experiment with drugs to see what they are like. There are kids who use drugs socially, but would never consider using drugs on a regular basis.
Signs of Dangerous Drugs Use
When drug use becomes a regular or daily pattern, young people are inviting serious problems. Problem use occurs when the use of drugs creates difficulties in their lives. Instead of stopping, they use more. These kids are trying to change their feelings and solve their problems with chemicals. Drug use is no longer social or experimental. It’s become a way of life. These young people need help to break their addictive pattern.
Not all kids who get into problem use become addicted. Addiction occurs when a chemical becomes their primary relationship. They are willing to suffer any loss (school, family, job) except their drug of choice. When your kids exhibit problem use or chemical dependency, you need to reach out for help from counselors, treatment programs and/or recovery groups.
Not all parents of pre-adolescents have to deal with serious problems, although some act as though mild use and brief experimentation is serious. At some point, however, most parents will be presented with opportunities to deal with the "party" issue. In the next dialogue, a parent shows how to use this as an opportunity to invite their children to think ahead and plan for consequences.
Help Kids Think Things Through
by Asking Instead of Telling
In the next dialogue, a father helps his son explore the possible consequences of planning a party without adult supervision while his parents are out of town. Notice that the father is using questions to help his son consider different possibilities.
Son: Hey, Dad, are you guys going away this weekend?
Dad: Yes, Mom and I thought we'd leave you and your sister home and we'd head to the coast for an overnight. We need some time together.
Son: Can we have a party while you're gone?
Dad: I don't think that would be a good idea. We would feel comfortable if you have a party when we're in town, but not when we're away.
Son: Oh, that's tight! My friends don't want a bunch of parents around.
Dad: Mom and I aren't a bunch of parents and I'm sure we can be discreet and well-behaved if you have your friends over. Let me ask you some questions. Have you thought of what might happen if word gets out that we're out of town and you're having a party?
Son: We'd only let kids come who we know.
Dad: And what would you do if a lot of strange kids show up and decide to crash the party?
Son: We'd ask them to leave.
Dad: And what if they said, "No"?
Son: We'd call the police.
Dad: And what would you do in the meantime if they were in the house and destroying property or throwing up on things?
Son: We'd clean up and fix things after they left.
Dad: It sounds like you have a lot of ideas of how you would take care of the situation, but I don't think it's well thought through. If you can come up with some other ideas that would convince me that the situation wouldn't get out of hand, I'd be willing to continue this discussion. Otherwise, the answer is no.
Sometimes you get angry with your kids because they don't think through consequences. When you are critical or tell kids what the consequences will be, you alienate them. It is better to help them build thinking skills by inviting them to think things through. It's okay to tell your kids "no" until you come up with something that is satisfactory to all involved. There may be a way to find a win-win situation when you approach your kids with respect and openness.
Teens’ Need for Privacy
Pre-adolescents have already reached the age where they think they know everything, so it is best to stop giving orders and instead, start sharing your feelings. It's okay to tell kids that you probably won't agree or see things the same way, but that they won't be punished for honesty or differing opinions.
One fourteen-year-old said it perfectly in a counseling session one day. His mom was asking why he never talks to her anymore. He looked at her and said, "I wish I could talk to you, but you'd be mad and I might get in trouble."
Mom was surprised. She said, "Don't we have a deal that even if I get upset, you'll never get in trouble for telling the truth?"
"Yeah," he said, "but I'm afraid if I told you some of the things I'm planning to do, you'd change your mind."
Mom replied, "I wish you would trust me to keep my word so I could be your friend and confidant."
Even in the best relationships, it’s still difficult for kids this age to communicate honestly with their parents. Even when parents demonstrate unconditional love, kids have their own beliefs about not wanting to upset or disappoint their parents. You can encourage them (instead of feeling jealous) to have other adult friends they can talk to, whom they know won’t snitch on them or judge them.
Parents who take a controlling, "I know best/I'm right" attitude tend to lose all influence. Parents who act as if everything is fine and handle drugs by closing their eyes and ignoring the situation are even less help. Kids feel scared and abandoned if their parents completely refuse to deal with the situation.
Heart-to-heart and gut-level honest communication is the best path with teens. This is especially true as your kids get older. When you focus on preparing your pre-teens and teens to protect themselves instead of protecting them, you have a lot of influence. This is modeled in the dialogues that follow between parents and teens.
Talking with Teens about Drugs
Teenagers are not kids anymore, but they’re not adults, either. Talking with them abut drugs requires respect and clarity. In their book Positive Discipline for Teenagers. Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott include a chapter on talking to teens about drugs. We recommend reading that chapter in addition to the information contained here.
We have found that a "Just say no" approach is ineffective and disrespectful at this age because it doesn’t teach kids to think. Teenagers tell us the "Just say no" approach helped in elementary school, but that they laugh at it now. Honesty, openness, a nonjudgmental attitude, and sharing information go a lot farther with teenagers, as the following examples shows.
Frank and Emily met in recovery, married and had a son, Randy. When Randy was born, Frank and Emily agreed to be open and honest about their past chemical abuse. They believed Randy would be at greater risk to become an addict or to marry one and they wanted him to be prepared for whatever might happen. They both worked their programs, went to meetings, read and shared, had friends in recovery, and took Randy to meetings.
Randy grew up knowing the language, symptoms and dangers of chemical abuse. He talked often with his parents and seemed clear that mood altering chemicals weren't for him. They supported his decision but also knew, and let him know, that in adolescence he might change his mind. They wanted him to know that if he did, the lines of communication would still be open.
At fifteen Randy still hadn't tried any mood altering substances but he was feeling curious. Several of his friends drank beer and they didn't seem to have any problems. Actually they seemed to have a good time laughing and telling jokes. All his life he had heard about all the terrible problems people had from drinking and using drugs. Maybe it wasn't such a big deal after all.
Randy mentioned this to Frank who replied, "So, you're thinking of trying some alcohol?" Randy said, "I don't know. I'm just curious I guess. The other kids don't seem to have big problems."
His Dad replied, "That may be, but everyone is different. It may not be the same for you even though I hope it won't be a problem. I hope that if you do decide to try alcohol that we can talk about it."
"Okay, but I haven't decided I will." Randy said.
The next Friday night, Randy went out with his buddies. One of them had gotten a couple of six packs. This time when they offered Randy a beer he took it. He noticed a strange feeling of apprehension, and then he felt warm and comfortable. He continued to drink.
The next thing he knew he was at home and it was morning. He couldn't remember how he had gotten home or much of what had happened the previous evening. He was frightened. He called his friend and found out he had a seemingly good time and had gotten a ride home. His friend was puzzled to hear that Randy couldn't remember.
Randy told his parents he wanted to talk with them. He told them what had happened. Emily began to cry. Frank said, "It sounds like you had a blackout. That's a sign that you're an alcoholic. It usually doesn't happen that fast but it can. What do you think?"
"That's what I was afraid of." Randy continued, "It was just like you had described it to me and it scared me. I guess I get to go to meetings for me now. I think that would be best. I don't want my life to have to fall apart for me before I learn. I've learned that from you guys." Emily hugged him and Randy said, "It's all alright, I always knew this could happen. You helped me prepare for this." (This story sounds too good to be true, but it’s based on real life clients whose names have been changed.)
Honest and open communication made a big difference with Randy. In the following story, Babs also experienced getting a lot of help from her mother because her mother was so open and nonjudgmental.
Dialogue with a Sixteen-Year-Old-Girl
Babs, a sixteen-year-old junior in high school liked to go out on weekends. Her mother, Susan had been in recovery for over a year. Although her mother worried about teen drug and alcohol use, she and Susan have worked on honest communication in recovery and have developed a good relationship even though they don't always see things the same.
Babs came home from school on Thursday and told her mother that she'd been invited to a party that Friday night and she wanted to go. "All the kids in her group were going." Susan asked where the party was and did Babs think there would be drinking going on. Babs told her mother which friend was having the party, hesitated for a moment and answered, "Yes, some of the guys are getting a keg."
Susan told Babs she needed a little while to think about it and would get back to her by dinner time. Susan's first thought was "No, I don't want you to go and be around that." She thought about what might happen if she told Babs that she couldn't go. They'd probably have a fight. She knew she could handle that but if her daughter really wanted to go she might sneak out the window. Worse, the next time this came up Babs might lie to her. Maybe she'd tell her mother she was going to a girlfriend's and go to the party. Communication would be shut down, Susan could lose her ability to have input and lose her opportunity to have influence with her daughter. If she sneaked out and something happened at the party, Babs might feel she couldn't call her mother for help. Susan thought about her daughter. She had faith in her ability to make good decisions but she also had concerns. As soon as they sat down at the table, Babs asked if she could go. Susan shared, "It scares me to have you go."
"Oh, Mom," Babs began.
"Please let me finish. Things might get out of control. Some kids might drink too much and get sick or drive. I'm afraid you could get hurt or worse, you might get raped."
"Well, it scares me. It probably won't happen but I'll feel better if you know that at this age your hormones are out of whack and when you add some alcohol to that, guys who usually behave one way may behave another. What would you do if that happened?"
"Mom, you worry too much."
"Do you feel that you can handle being there?"
Babs paused. Then she said, "Yes, I can handle it."
"Okay, I trust your judgment. I want you to know that if it feels unsafe at any time or if you've had enough and need a ride home you can call and I'll pick you up." Babs got up and gave her mother a big hug.
Saturday morning when Babs came down to breakfast, Susan asked her how the party went. Babs said, "It was okay. The guys got sick and spent most of the night throwing up with the girls taking care of them."
"Oh, that doesn't sound like much fun."
"It wasn't," Babs said. "I don't know why people think parties are such a big deal. I'd rather go to a movie."
There is no substitute for open, non-critical communication with teens. When you give teenagers the opportunity to live their lives and to learn from their experiences, they will give you the opportunity to be there for guidance and support.
Parents have more life experience and a broader perspective than their teens. When you have the courage to share your fears, even though your kids might dismiss them, you have raised their awareness of the issues and let them know it's okay to talk about anything.
Dialogue with a Seventeen-Year-Old Boy
Sometimes teens can hear one concern more clearly than others. Here’s an example.
Mom: Alan, I notice that you've been gaining weight. I can guess how much drinking you've been doing by looking at your belly.
Alan: Is it that noticeable?
Mom: Alan, I know that how you look is really important to you. You dress real sharp, you spend hours on your hair, you lift weights and you look in the mirror every chance you get. If you continue to drink as much beer as you do, it isn't going to improve your appearance, and yes, the beer belly is noticeable.
Alan shrugged and walked away. Several months later Alan asked his mom is she noticed anything different? Mom said she noticed that Alan was doing less drinking.
"You mean I don't have a beer belly anymore?" asked Alan.
"I mean, you hardly have a beer belly anymore and I can tell you're working on correcting that. Good for you."
Alan grinned and walked away whistling.
With teens, sometimes you need to say certain things, not because your kids will go out and do what you say, but because they'll think about it, and they need the information. When you present them with another picture, it may stick in their minds. When they're ready, they may hear your words and it could make a difference. The following conversation is from the heart and loaded with useful information that kids will probably remember when they need it.
Dad: I want to talk to you about something because I see you and a lot of your friends ruining your bodies and self-respect over alcohol.
Son: Are you going to start in about drinking again? We just like kicking back. There's nothing else to do anyway. You and Mom drink, so what's the big deal. I wouldn't have any fun at a dance or a party if I'm the only straight person there.
Dad: I notice that a lot of your friends are becoming addicted to drugs, and that's not cool. I think sometimes you think when you're drunk that you're fun and clever and popular. Being around a drunk is really a drag after awhile. I think you kids have a lot of insecurities and fears and you use alcohol to hide them and mask them. All it does is take you away from the life you want to live. When you're using, you show no respect for yourself or other people in your life.
Son: Dad, everyone drinks. You're just being uptight.
Dad: I wish you loved yourself and your body enough to stop using and would work on getting a life instead. Using as much as you and your friends do is extremely risky. You're building habits you may find hard to change. Also, you're developing a tolerance for alcohol. That's very dangerous. It seems like you never have a day without being under the influence. Many people whose lives have become unmanageable because of drugs started off just that way. They didn't sit down and say, "I think I'll become an alcoholic." They did what you are doing and before they knew it, they destroyed friendships, family, morals and self-respect. If I could make you stop, I would, but I know that you're the one who has to decide that. I don't intend to pretend that what you are doing is okay. I hope you'll think about the things I'm saying and consider them.
Son: Well, I'm not going to stop partying. I think you worry too much. It's okay, Dad. Lighten up!
This father knows that what kids do today is not necessarily what they'll do tomorrow. He trusts the delayed reaction that often happens with this age group. As long as the father operates on the principals of mutual respect, he can trust that the lines of communication will stay open and that he can continue to have an influence with his son.
We hope that the guidelines and sample dialogues presented in this chapter will help ease your fears and give you tools for helping your kids learn about drugs and their uses and possible abuses through communication that is honest, informative, open, and nonjudgmental.