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‘Have you done drugs?’ How to answer your kid

Talking to your children about substance abuse can be difficult, especially when they turn the conversation around on you. In his book, “How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid,” Joseph A. Califano offers tips on how to have a productive discussion about drugs. An excerpt.

Communication — talking, listening, and guiding — is the core of parental engagement. You need to be able to talk with your children about difficult issues, including substance abuse, to get them to talk to you honestly about what’s going on in their lives, and to guide them to make healthy, sensible decisions.

But how?

With a teenager especially, how do you connect on a level that is comfortable and natural?

How do you become engaged in your son’s life without making him feel as if you are invading his space? How do you ask questions without making your daughter feel like she’s being interrogated?

How do you talk about substance use (or other risky behaviors) without it turning into a confrontation or a fight? Without getting a “You don’t trust me!” shouted back?

The first step in building good communication is to start early spending quality time just talking to your child — in the car, during dinner, watching TV, going to church, at ball games, walking the dog, playing games, in the park, on vacation — using the moments you have together to get to know your kids and to let your kids get to know you. Talk about anything and everything, it doesn’t matter so much what the subject is as long as you and your children are communicating openly. Your children won’t feel comfortable talking about difficult issues, like drugs and alcohol, if they don’t feel that it’s normal to talk to you about what’s going on in their lives.

With a solid foundation of open, two-way communication, cemented by talking and listening to your child, you will have the Parent Power to guide your child to make the right decisions if your guidance has the ring of authenticity to both of you.

What do I mean by authenticity? Your guidance to your child on making healthy, drug-free decisions and the discussion that accompanies it will have authenticity if they are based on facts and nourished by love.

Know the facts and stick to the facts
The facts I set out in Chapters 4 and 5 give you plenty of accurate information to help you make the case that your teen should stay away from drugs. Use that information confidently. You have science and medicine and the law on your side. You don’t need to exaggerate or embellish the dangers of tobacco, alcohol, and drug use. If you exaggerate those dangers, your kids will smell a rat.

Be realistic about why people abuse alcohol and other drugs.

For example, they can make you feel good and forget about your problems — but only temporarily. Underscore that while it may seem to your child that marijuana and other illegal drugs are everywhere, most people don’t use them and haven’t tried them.

If you can’t answer all your child’s questions or you don’t know all the facts about a drug your son or daughter asks about, just admit it. If you’re not sure of something, tell them that and say, “Let’s find out together.” For instance: “I’m not sure exactly what meth does to your body, but I’ve seen the ads on TV and they worry me. What do you think it does? Let’s learn more about this together.” You and your child can start by reading the “Parent Power Glossary for Parents and Teens” in this book; you can also consult other resources from the library, visit health or government websites like www.nida.nih.gov, or ask your doctor for more information.

Take advantage of opportunities in the news to talk to your teen. When there’s a story on television or in the papers about a drug overdose, celebrity antics under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or a drunk-driving incident, use it to open up a conversation and probe your teen’s reaction.

When you talk to your kids, focus on facts that are relevant to them. Let’s say you’re talking about why smoking is bad. Describing the long-term dangers of smoking — lung cancer, heart disease, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema — will make their eyes glaze over. Most teens have a sense of invulnerability, that they are immortal, impervious to harm; for them, those are diseases that happen to “old people.”

If you see an ad for cigarettes with your child, point out that the tobacco companies are trying to manipulate kids to get them addicted to their product so that the companies can profit from their habit. Say, “Don’t let the tobacco companies make a sucker out of you.” If your child tells you that friends or classmates smoke, say, “The cigarettes smoke, your friends are just the suckers on the other end.”

Use pithy examples. Telling your teenage children that “Kissing a smoker is like licking a dirty ashtray” might make the point because they’re likely to hear it from, or tell it to, their boyfriend or girlfriend.

Communication starts with you
Let’s say you want to have a conversation with your son about drugs in school. Imagine you begin by lecturing him about not using drugs. Your son listens in silence.

You say, “Are you listening to me?”

Your son says, “Yes,” and then goes to his room and shuts the door.

That wasn’t much of a conversation, was it?

If you want to be able to talk about substance abuse (or any difficult issue) in a comfortable way with your child, you need to establish the lines of communication well beforehand, by encouraging conversations when your child is younger. Conversations are also a give-and-take operation: Make sure that you are receiving (listening) as much as you are giving (talking). Sometimes an open mind and an open ear are the best things you can bring to a conversation with your teenager.

Here is an example of how a productive conversation with your child might sound:

Parent: “Why do you think someone your age would want to smoke marijuana?”

Teen: “I dunno. To be cool, probably. Maybe just to try it.”

Parent: “Do you think that smoking pot is a cool idea for someone your age?”

Teen: “Well, probably you would get into trouble if you got caught, so that’s dumb. But I dunno. Lots of older kids do it.”

Parent: “Did you know that marijuana is addictive? It affects your ability to think and to learn. Also smoking pot when you’re young increases your risk of getting hooked on other drugs.”

Teen: “Really? I didn’t know all that! Well then how come everyone does it?”

Parent: “Actually, everyone doesn’t do it. Most kids don’t smoke marijuana. In any case, your [father/mother] and I know that you’re smart and you’ll make healthy choices about what you put into your body.”

You need to get to the point where spending time alone talking to your child feels natural to both of you. The goal is to really get to know your child — your child’s hopes, fears, likes, and dislikes — and to have your child get to know you too! Your child will be comfortable discussing difficult issues with you if he knows what your views are, what your parenting style is, and that you’ll react to the difficult truths your child may reveal without yelling and/or rushing to conclusions. Self-discipline on your part is important. Balancing understanding and firm guidance is no easy task, but if you master it, you will find your child more willing to talk to you about the problems he faces. Once you and your child are comfortable talking to one another, you can persuasively convey important messages about what behavior is — and is not — acceptable for your family.

Year after year, when CASA surveys ask teens what issues are their greatest concern, teens name drugs more than any other. Social pressures are close behind, and social pressures probably include the pressure to do drugs. These concerns are well ahead of getting good grades, getting into college, sexual pressures, crime and violence, being bullied, or getting a job. Your kids are concerned about drugs, and they want to talk to you about their concerns. But your children may hesitate, or feel uncomfortable discussing their concerns, or even refuse to talk to you if you haven’t established ongoing communication with them or if they believe you will be hostile in response to their honesty.

The better you are at listening, the likelier your child is to open up to you and to listen to you. Parents who are not good listeners should not be surprised if their children don’t pay attention to them. If you want your children to listen to you and respect your opinions, give your kids lots of opportunities to talk to you about the things that matter to them.

Being a good listener takes some practice. Give your children your undivided attention. Make eye contact. Paraphrase what they’ve said to confirm that you’ve heard them correctly. Ask open-ended follow-up questions to encourage conversation. Don’t interrupt or jump too quickly to fill in silences; allow your children to express themselves fully.

If your child asks, “Did you do drugs?”, it’s time to talk
What do you do if your child asks you, point blank, “Mom [or Dad], did you smoke marijuana when you were a kid?” Whether your answer is yes or no, the ensuing discussion shouldn’t be about you, but about your child and why he’s asking, and how your child’s choices about substance use will affect his future. Your child has just opened the window for you to start a conversation about substance use, so take advantage of the opportunity!

If your child is asking you this question, it’s probably because something happened and your child is wondering what behavior is right for him or her. So before you disclose anything, find out why your child is asking the question. “What makes you ask, honey? Did you see or hear something that made you wonder if I ever smoked pot?” Maybe a friend’s parents smoke pot in front of their kids, and your child wants to know if that’s “normal.” Or maybe a friend offered your child a joint and said, “Everyone smokes pot when they’re young.” By finding out what information your child really wants to know, you can direct your response appropriately.

Diverting the conversation back to your child — “Let’s talk about you” — is a useful psychological tool and you have every right to use it. After all, it’s one of the perks of being the parent. And you don’t want to miss this key opportunity to guide your child to make healthy, drug-free choices.

Use your personal experiences as a teaching tool
There’s no consensus, no hard-and-fast rule, about how you should answer your child’s question about your own history of alcohol and drug use. Whether and what to tell your child will vary from family to family, depending on the situation of the child (age, risk factors, etc.) and the experience of the parents.

If you didn’t drink, smoke tobacco, or use marijuana or other drugs, the answer may seem obvious: “No.” But when you tell your child that you never tried it, be prepared for the possibility that your child will say, “Then how can you say it’s dangerous or bad for me?” You can point out that there are lots of things we’ve never tried that we know are bad for us. There are many examples you can use. Perhaps you have a story about a friend who got into trouble as a result of drinking or drug use. Or you can rely on your own good judgment. “You don’t have to put your hand into a flame to tell your little boy or girl not to do it.”

How and what you tell your children about your own substance use is critical. If you did use drugs when you were a teen or in college, do not lie about it. If you lie, you can lose credibility with your children and that is a sure way of eroding your Parent Power. That doesn’t mean you have to tell your kids everything about your drug use, any more than you would tell them about your sex life or personal or family finances. But whatever you do share with your children, be sure to emphasize that you don’t want your children to make the same mistake and explain why. You can tell them, “We know a lot more today about the dangers of drug use than we did when I was growing up.”

Telling the truth doesn’t mean disclosing everything. Remember, you are the parent; your job is to keep your kids safe and healthy. As the authority figure, you have the right to tell your child only what you think is appropriate for a parent to disclose. There’s no parental obligation to disclose your childhood foibles.

Your negative experiences are important teaching points to share with your children. Say you were at a party in high school or college and everyone started smoking pot but you didn’t want to, so you went home. This story illustrates that you had the wisdom and courage to withstand peer pressure, and can inspire your children to do the same. If you or a friend or a classmate got into serious trouble because of drinking or drugs — became addicted, had a car accident, were sexually assaulted — you should use those stories to illustrate the dangers of substance abuse, and to reinforce your message that your children shouldn’t repeat your mistakes or those of your friends.

If you decide to tell your children about your own history of drug use or underage drinking, make it clear that in retrospect it was a big mistake. Focus on the fact that we know a lot more now about how harmful smoking, drinking, and drugs (especially marijuana) can be for teens. Also describe any negative aspects of your experience. This can assure that your children don’t take your past conduct as proof that such behavior is a normal part of growing up or as a signal that you won’t punish them for doing the same things you did. Here are some examples:

“Yes, I smoked pot and it was a big mistake. It made me paranoid and stupid and I got into trouble with my parents.”

“Back then, we didn’t know how bad cigarettes and marijuana are for you. When I was your age, many of us smoked cigarettes. We thought it was sophisticated, like the movie stars. We didn’t know what we know today about the cancers, heart attacks, and emphysema that cigarettes cause. So it is with marijuana. We know a lot more about marijuana today than we did years ago, and it’s a more immediate threat to you than cigarettes were when I was a teenager. Marijuana today is much stronger than it was when I was in college. We now know that it’s addictive and can damage your developing brain and affect your memory, ability to concentrate, and learning skills.”

“I had a friend who talked me into trying cocaine. I did it once and didn’t really like it, but my friend got addicted to it and had to drop out of college to get treatment. It was a dumb risk to take and I’m just plain lucky that I didn’t get hooked. My parents didn’t talk to me about drugs so I didn’t know better. I want you to be educated so that you can make smarter decisions than I did.”

Parent tips
• Early on, establish an open dialogue with your children and make your expectations about their substance use clear.

• Make talking with your children about substance use a natural part of your continuing discussion with them, rather than just a one-time event.

• When discussing alcohol and other drugs, be honest and focus on the facts appropriate to your child’s developmental stage.

• Use news events, TV shows, or real life occurrences as teaching opportunities.

• If your child asks about your history of substance use, don’t lie, but focus your response on your child and why your child is asking.

• Teach your child that being a good friend means getting help for a friend who abuses substances.

Excerpted from "How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid" by Joseph A. Califano, Jr. Copyright (c) 2009 by Joseph A. Califano, Jr. Reprinted with permission of Fireside, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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