What do you wish your parents would have told you about substance abuse? Do you wish they told you how it might affect your health? Your relationships? Your judgment? Your perception of yourself? If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself?
According to a survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, use of illicit drugs (other than marijuana) amongst high school students is holding steady at the lowest levels in 20 years, and while these are promising numbers, kids have more access than ever to drugs and alcohol. If kids are determined enough to get their hands on something, they will, whether it’s through medicine cabinets at home, friends, social media apps, or online black markets. And because of this is, it’s important that you talk to your children and teens about the effects of substance abuse.
This conversation can be uncomfortable for any parent, especially one that has had their own struggles with substance abuse in the past. But the reality is that your experience is actually an advantage. You have experienced first-hand the negative effects of substance abuse. You can provide your child more than numbers and statistics.
While being open and honest is important, there is such a thing as saying too much. Remember, that although your relationship with drugs and alcohol certainly plays a role, this conversation isn’t about you. It’s about your child and making sure that they are equipped to make the right decision.
It is helpful to frame a discussion about substance use as you would any other health issue, such as exercise, diabetes and asthma. Take it slow, get the facts, promote discussion, have a plan, and invest in support.
Here are some tips that may prove useful in your development of a plan:
Build Emotional Strength and Resiliency First
As you know, emotional well-being plays a major role in substance abuse. Children and teens already struggle with managing emotional responses, so start by advocating for healthy communication and self-resiliency. It is important that you pay attention to changes in their emotions and behaviors. Do not ignore the signs for mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression. Talk to them and help them through it. Establishing a healthy relationship is a necessary foundation for effectively discussing substance abuse risks and triggers.
Children will likely begin to hear about alcohol and substances in school or among their peers. When children and teens don’t feel comfortable talking to parents, they will seek answers elsewhere, even if these alternate sources are unreliable. It is important that you practice regular communication and provide a safe space and find opportunities for your child to ask questions.
Take Advantage of Teachable Moments
It is important that you keep your discussions age-appropriate. A great way to do this is by taking advantage of any ‘teachable’ moments to discuss alcohol, substances, and nicotine use. Utilize things you see in pop culture that may be relatable to them, such as someone smoking on TV or in a movie. Ask them how they feel about seeing that person smoke and ease into a conversation about what it may do to their health. This makes the conversation feel more natural and easier for younger children to understand. For children 10 or under, you can also focus on how sometimes people struggle to say “no” or make positive choices.
Utilize Real-Life Examples
While this may not be appropriate for young children, chances are that your teen knows of your history with substance abuse. If that is the case, you can use your own experiences to talk about the dangers of using. There’s no need to give specifics or focus on rock bottom moments. Instead, focus on how easily experimenting with drugs and alcohol can lead to addiction. Focus on how it affected you mentally and emotionally and the hard work and effort that goes into you staying sober every day. Talk about what you have learned in your recovery journey. And while honesty is important, remember who your audience is. Sometimes it is best to let your teen take the lead and just focus on answering their questions.
Establish Clear Rules
Having a clear family plan regarding what the adults in the home understand and believe about alcohol and substances is key in sending clear messages. If you have teens in the home, it is important to establish expectations, so your teen understands what is acceptable and not acceptable for your family. Some families have utilized verbal or written contracts on the rules about going out and using the family car.
Provide Non-Judgmental Support
Using non-judgmental and open-ended communication in the home encourages your children and teens to do the same. Create an open environment in which they can express their thoughts and feelings without shame. This builds trust. Your children and teens are more likely to seek you out with questions if there is trust and an open environment to be curious and ask for help. Pay attention to cues and recognize when your children are going through difficult times, so that you may provide support they need. Understand that despite your best efforts and warnings, your child might choose to experiment with drugs and alcohol. If that occurs, remember that what helped you most was having someone there to support you. So, avoid the lectures and let them know that you are always there to help.
When communicating with children and teens about sensitive topics, it is all about the delivery of the message and ensuring that the message is clear, concise, and is backed up by your own confidence and belief. Utilizing the tips provided above will give you a basis to begin and keep the conversation going. While there is no one “right” way to speak with your children and teens, having a plan, knowing the facts, finding time to talk and providing a safe place to communicate will help guide your way. Backing up what you say with actions and an open heart will make it more likely that they will hear the message.