Talking to Your Child About Drugs

Most parents approach the topic of drugs with fear. They hope to discourage their child from using them, but they worry about saying the wrong thing. After all, mishandle it and who knows what the consequences could be.

Patronizing Them

When talking to your child, you must first consider not just what you say but how you say it. Do not patronize them. You then set yourself up as the all-knowing authority, and they are supposed to bow to your wisdom. But teenagers want to establish an independent identity, and they do so by rebelling. That need not mean coming home late and slamming the bedroom door in your face. Rebellion can also manifest as quiet, sullen rejection. Remember, nods and grunts do not mean they are listening! If you patronize them, they may simply shut you out and do the very thing you’ve told them not to.

For example, do not say “when I was your age, other kids tried to tempt me with drugs, but I was strong enough to say no. Try and follow my example.” That would irritate even an adult – imagine how it sounds to a teen with raging hormones. Don’t just lecture them, listen to what they say. And reply as though you are speaking to an intelligent adult.

Also, don’t be afraid to expose your own weakness. A teen will respect you far more if you say “I was such an idiot when I was a kid. I was so confused and unhappy that if someone had offered me heroin I’d have probably tried it. But I’m sure you’ll be too smart for the dealers.” So long as you don’t overdo it (teenagers quickly sense manipulation), that approach will work far better.

And don’t overdo the dangers either. Never underestimate your teen. They may know much more about drugs than you do. If you are going to lecture them, get your facts straight. Do not say, for example, that an ecstasy tablet or cannabis joint could kill them. As soon as a child senses exaggeration, they stop listening. And don’t pretend there is no pleasure to be had from drugs. Obviously there is or people wouldn’t use them. Do your research. Speaking in a sensible yet informed way is a compliment. It demonstrates that you respect your child’s intelligence and capacity to understand.

Scaring Them

Some argue in favor of scaring children, some against. You know your child and how they are likely to respond. Some will be genuinely frightened, others will resent this approach, seeing it as an attempt to manipulate and control them. For example, do not record a program on heroin addiction and then announce that you have something you want them to watch. Again, you set yourself up as the great authority. Instead, tell them you want to watch an interesting documentary on addiction. Hopefully they’ll stay in the room. If they do, share in the horror. When a scene appears in which a mother describes losing her son to opioids, or a father recalls his daughter’s overdose, say “isn’t it sad?,” drawing them in and treating as an equal. Don’t pompously announce “you see what happens!”

And focus on something they care about. For example, if your daughter is vain, describe the effect drugs can have on one’s appearance – how crack addicts, for example, often lose their teeth, or how cocaine abusers burn away the septum. (In the UK, a famous young actress, Daniella Westbrook, was photographed with a missing septum in May 2000, as the result of a cocaine habit. You could soon find the photograph online. No doubt many young fans were put off cocaine for life by this image, which was in the British media for weeks). If your son plans to join the Air Force, on the other hand, or hopes to work abroad, warn him that a drugs offence will count against him.

You could also tell them about people who succumbed to addiction. Even if you never knew anyone personally, you have probably heard about the friend of a friend. And make a note of any drug-related horror story in the newspaper or at work. You don’t need to sit your child down and solemnly repeat this. Instead, tell your partner about it over the dinner table while your child eats. These kinds of stories stick in the memory and reinforce the idea that drugs are dangerous.

Being Realistic

Your child will almost certainly try drugs at some point in their life. Indeed, there is a huge amount of hypocrisy around drugs. Even those who take a hard line love an evening glass of wine, or enjoy their Valium and sleeping pills.

Rather than telling them never to touch anything, emphasize that while no drug is harmless, some are worse than others. To put it bluntly, if your child is going to take drugs, it would be better to use mushrooms or ecstasy than heroin or meth. In 2010, the British Psychiatrist David Nutt ranked drugs from most to least dangerous, taking into account both how addictive each one is and how much harm they cause the body. Nutt placed alcohol and heroin at the top, magic mushrooms and ecstasy at the bottom. The list is easy to obtain online, as are interviews with sensible, rational experts like Nutt.

Your child is more likely to listen if you speak in a rational and realistic manner. Don’t tell them that drugs are horrible or disgusting. Admit that they can be pleasurable, that they don’t always harm people and that some are less dangerous than others. You might also tell them about problems you had yourself. Speaking in such a sensible, honest way will win their respect and, crucially, make them more likely to approach you if they get in trouble.

If you discover that your child has been using drugs, don’t scream and yell, and don’t tell them you are ashamed. Telling them you feel ashamed will backfire. First, it suggests that what really worries you is the neighbour’s gossip. It will also drive a wedge between you. The child will reason that since you are ashamed anyway it doesn’t matter what they do – they are already a failure. Above all, they need to feel that you oppose drug use because you love them and want them to be safe.

Bear in mind that different drugs have different effects. Some can use a highly addictive substance like heroin without becoming hooked, while others become addicted even to prescription painkillers. Stress that just because their friend has not become dependent on cannabis that doesn’t mean they won’t either. These kinds of addictions often run in families. If your father or brother was an alcoholic, it may be better for your son to use mushrooms and ecstasy than drink beer.

Reassuring Them That You Are There

When you talk to them, make it clear that you are always there. Children must feel they can approach you and ask for guidance or advice no matter what. Indeed, this is true of more than just drugs. The father who threatens that he would kill any man who abused his daughter makes a mistake. If she then experiences sexual assault, how likely is she to tell him? Almost certainly she’d be terrified of his reaction and so keep it to herself, thus enabling the abuse to continue.

If you are too strict and show no sympathy or understanding for users and addicts, your child may consider you unapproachable. And so you miss the chance to help them before problems escalate. Time and again parents hug their hurt or broken child and, with tears in their eyes, ask “why didn’t you talk to me sooner?” Usually, the reply will be “because I thought you’d be angry,” or “because I didn’t think you’d understand”.

Approaching Them Through Their Friends

The parents of a teenager should always make an effort to get to know their friends. Teens often tell their friends things they won’t tell their parents. If that friend worries they are becoming addicted, or have fallen under the spell of a dealer, they will be more likely to approach you. If your child becomes rude and confrontational, or merely sullen and withdrawn, any kind of discussion becomes hard, let alone about something as serious as drugs. Establish a good relationship with their friends and you may be able to communicate through them.

If they have a close friend who often calls, take the opportunity to get to know them. Ask about their life, their family and their hobbies, and make a note of what they tell you. If their grandmother is unwell, or they love football and have an upcoming game, ask about these things next time you meet. That way you establish intimacy. You can then mention drug use. If you cannot dissuade your own teen, you might at least influence their friends, who will then influence your child.

If your teen’s life is a mystery, their friends may also reveal a great deal – maybe unintentionally. But be subtle and careful. Do not ask directly. Instead, allow the conversation to circle around subjects like school and bullying and drugs and hope they let something slip. Nothing will enrage your child like discovering you’ve been asking their friends about their life.

Drug use is a serious matter, and one that needs to addressed. But try not to panic. The majority of people have tried an illegal drug by their late teens, and yet most do so without suffering lasting damage. When you approach your child, do not be hysterical or intolerant. Instead, be calm and rational, get your facts straight, treat them with respect and everything should be fine.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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