Talking with your child about alcohol and other drugs is an on-going conversation. You are likely to have a greater impact on your child’s decisions about underage drinking and drug use by having a number of discussions about this health issue throughout his or her adolescence. Remember to encourage dialogue, and avoid being pulled into lecture mode. Find out what your child thinks about alcohol, drinking, marijuana and other drug use. Ask your child what he or she knows about alcohol and drugs and why it might be that teens use substances.
Among recommended ways to approach these very important, ongoing conversations:
Communicate clearly that you want your child to avoid alcohol and drug use. Clearly state your expectations about your child using alcohol or other drugs. Clear, “no use” messages are critical: “I don’t want you drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco or marijuana,” or “Underage drinking and drug use are not allowed in our home,” or “I want you to be as healthy as possible, which is why I don’t want you drinking alcohol or using drugs.” Your values and attitudes count with your child, even if his or her responses do not make that clear.
Maintain self-respect. Teens say the best way to persuade them to avoid alcohol is to appeal to their self-respect: let them know they are too smart and have too much going for them to need the crutch of alcohol or other drugs. Teens also are likely to pay attention to examples of how alcohol or marijuana use might lead to embarrassing situations —things that might damage their reputation or alter important relationships.
Explain that underage drinking and other teen drug use are illegal — and breaking laws and rules have consequences.Getting caught drinking, smoking marijuana or using other drugs may mean trouble with the authorities for your child. Even if getting caught does not lead to police action, the parents of your child’s friends may no longer permit them to associate with your child. Drinking and drug use is in violation of Wayland High School’s Substance Abuse Policy. Getting caught may mean student privileges are taken away, and/or suspension from a sport, theater or musical event. Review the school’s policy with your child, and make sure he or she understands potential violations and penalties.
Explain that underage drinking and teen drug use are dangerous. One of the leading causes of teen deaths is motor vehicle crashes involving alcohol or marijuana. Drinking and marijuana use also make a young person more vulnerable to sexual assault and unprotected sex. Point out to your child that because alcohol and marijuana impair judgment and cognitive functioning, a person under the influence of these substances is very likely to think hazardous activities and risk-taking will not be dangerous. Adolescent substance use is also especially harmful to the developing brain. Explain to the youth you love that the human brain isn’t fully formed until approximately the age of 25 — and that drug use before that time can lead to serious health consequences in middle age.
Make sure your child is aware of your family’s history of substance addiction. If a member of your family has suffered from alcoholism or addiction, your child may be four times more vulnerable to developing a chemical-dependence problem. Alcohol and marijuana use affects young people differently than adults. Using these drugs while the brain is still maturing may lead to long-lasting intellectual effects, and increase the likelihood of developing chemical dependency later in life.
Give pointers to your child about how to handle peer pressure. It is not enough to tell your young teen to avoid alcohol and drugs. You also need to help your child figure out how to do so. What can your daughter say when she goes to a party and a friend offers her a beer? Or what should your son do if he finds himself in a home where kids are passing around a joint or bottle of liquor, and parents are nowhere in sight? What should your child’s response be if he or she is offered a ride home with a friend who has been smoking pot or drinking? Brainstorm with your teen ways that he or she might handle these and other difficult situations, and make clear that you are ready to support your child. An example: “If you find yourself at a home where kids are drinking, call me, and I’ll pick you up—and there will be no scolding or punishment.” The more prepared your child is, the better able he or she will be to handle high-pressure situations involving drinking or drug use.
Be ready — and thoughtful — when you’re asked, “Mom, Dad, did you drink or use drugs when you were a kid?” This is the question many parents dread — but it is highly likely to come up in any family discussion of alcohol and drug use. If the answer is yes, have confidence that you can be honest with your child without sounding like a hypocrite who advises, “Do as I say, not as I did.”
First, it is important to determine why your child is asking the question in the first place. Keep the conversation focused on him or her and not you. Your child could be asking because something happened, and he or she is trying to figure out what to do in a situation. By determining why your child is asking and what information or guidance your child needs, you can respond more appropriately about your own use.
Ultimately, how to answer this question is a judgment call and will vary from family to family. If you believe your drinking or drug use history should not be part of the discussion, you can simply tell your child that you choose not to share it. Another approach is to admit that you did drink or use drugs as a teenager — and explain there were serious consequences and regrets. Give your teen an example of an embarrassing or painful moment that occurred as a result of your use. This may help your child better understand that youth alcohol and other drug use really do have negative consequences.
Adapted from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2006. Make a Difference: Talk With Your Child About Alcohol.