Taking on tough conversations

Tough conversations come with the territory for parents. As children reach teenage years, the potential exposure to alcohol and drugs can lead to some of these difficult conversations. One question from a child that might cause a moment of panic: “Did you try drugs or alcohol when you were young?”

If the answer is yes, will confirming it make it seem like it’s OK for the teen to do the same? If it’s yes, and the parent denies it, then you’re dealing with a lie from that point forward.

It’s complicated, and so are some of the differing studies on the topic. Here’s a look at some of those questions and tips from experts.

Be honest

It’s always the best policy, right? Parents that share their experiences with drugs and alcohol can know that they aren’t hiding it, and try to relate to what their children are going through. In a story for CRC Health, clinical social worker Laurie Wilmot advises that sharing the consequences of their actions can help to illustrate the dangers involved.

“Parents don’t need to disclose every detail of their history, but they can tell key stories and describe how their drug use affected their grades, their home life, and they felt about themselves,” she says. “By sharing what they’ve learned from their own experiences and asking their child questions to make sure their message is getting across, parents can be honest without inadvertently granting their child permission to use drugs or alcohol.”

Conversations can make teens less likely to use drugs

Parents that share their experiences can see positive results. Example: A survey by the Hazelden treatment center, called “Four Generations Overcoming Addiction.” As described by Lisa Belkin for The New York Times, the study showed “that our children want to hear these things from us, and that conversation is a powerful weapon against teen drug use.”

Here are some of the findings:

  • “Half of teens say it would make them less likely to use drugs if their parents told them about their own drug use when they were younger.”
  • “Two-thirds of teens (67 percent) say their parents have already told them about their experiences with alcohol and other drugs when they were young — and these teens almost unanimously (95 percent) said that kind of honesty about drug use is a good thing.”
  • “Among the one-third of teenagers (33 percent) who report their parents have not talked with them about their own use of drugs as teenagers, two in three (68 percent) say that they would want their parents to share these past experiences.”

Conversations can lead to ‘pro-substance-use beliefs’

Another report shows a differing perspective. A study published in Human Communication Research asked more than 500 students in sixth through eighth grades if their parents had discussed their own alcohol or drug use in their younger years, and if they expressed regrets. As reported by Tia Ghose for Live Science, approximately 80 percent responded that their parents did discuss it.

According to study organizer Jennifer Kam of the University of Illinois, “The more often the parents talked about regret over their own use, the bad things that happened, and that they’d never use it again, the students were more likely to report pro-substance-use beliefs.” Ghose writes that the “researchers hypothesize that these messages may backfire by leading kids to think ‘If my parents did it, it’s not that bad,’ Kam said.”

One caveat to the results comes from Michael Fendrich, a substance abuse epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. As Ghose writes, “… The findings are correlational, so the study doesn’t show that parental honesty actually leads to drug and alcohol use amongst teens, and tying such communication to addiction or drug and alcohol abuse down the line is even more tenuous, Fendrich said.”

The dangers of assumption

Parents that decide against sharing their past experiences with their children may be scared or ashamed to admit it. Or, as Tripp Underwood writes for Boston Children’s Hospital, parents may make a misguided assumption that the child will outgrow drug use in the same way they did. The story includes commentary by Sharon Levy of the hospital’s adolescent substance abuse program.

“I often hear parents say things like, ‘My son is smoking marijuana very heavily, but I did it when I was his age so I’m not too worried,’” Levy says. “But parents can’t assume their kids will grow out of something just because they stopped using at certain point. Alcohol, marijuana and other drug use are all associated with the top four causes of mortality in adolescents. So even if parents used drugs without serious consequences when they were young, if their adolescent is using, he or she is still at good deal of risk — just as if a parent who drove without a seat belt as a teenager and never got in a car accident doesn’t protect their children in a crash now.”

Levy advises that it’s important that parents “don’t glorify their past drug use or get sidetracked.”

“It’s all very dependent on circumstance, but in most cases I don’t think a parent needs to go into a lot of specific detail when questioned by their kids about their past,” she says. “Sometimes just touching on it can be enough.”

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