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Study: Don’t Tell Kids About Past Drug Use


We shouldn’t tell our kids about pre-baby drinking binges and bong hits. Or should we?

A new study of 561 American middle-schoolers found that parents who didn’t share their sordid drug/alcohol past had children with stronger anti-drug attitudes than those who did.

“Knowing that their parents tried substances may actually normalize this behavior for kids and make it seem OK,” explains the study’s lead author Jennifer Kam, assistant professor of communication at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In other words: The kids whose parents uh, overshared may adopt the mentality that “my mom did drank and smoked pot and turned out fine, so what’s the big deal?”

Just a few years ago, however, renowned addiction-treatment center Hazelden conducted a 50-state survey that found just the opposite: Half of teens say that hearing about their parents’ past drug use would make them less likely to use drugs. And parents by and large are choosing to tell their kids: 67 percent of teens said their parents had already shared their drug and alcohol experiences ,and 95 percent of them said it’s good for parents be honest about drug use.

So what’s a parent to do?

Plus: Are We Overmedicating Our Kids?

“We have to surrender this gimmicky, superficial tactic, one-size-fits-all nonsense when it comes to parenting because it does not address the depths of the issue and everyone’s context is different,” says Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director at Hazelden who has worked with thousands of families dealing with substance abuse. He’s also author of Recovering Your Kid: Parenting Young Adults in Treatment and Beyond.

Keeping your kid addiction-free doesn’t boil down to one conversation. Bigger factors are at play, including a family’s addiction risk and culture. Is one parent at risk? Has another close relative had an addiction? Are parents running the show at home or are the kids? “We have forgotten how to be leaders in our homes. A culture of leadership will teach kids how to emote and communicate properly because parents will model it. Kids will know who is in charge, and the parents will have a better idea that the kids know what is expected of them.” 

Dr. Kam suggests that instead of focusing on your personal experiences with drugs and alcohol, you share a different type of anti-substance abuse message with your kids — one that covers how to say no when someone offers you drugs, the negative consequences of substance abuse, your family’s rules, and how drugs and alcohol are portrayed in the media vs. real life. This type of conversation should be happening before middle school, when most kids have already formed opinions about drugs and alcohol.

Of course, it’s totally up to you whether you disclose your past to your children. But if your child flat out asks you if you drank and used drugs, it’s best to ’fess up, advises Dr. Kam.

When and if it comes time to have the talk, follow this advice from Dr. Kam and Dr. Lee:

  • Think backward about how your kid will interpret your message. If your child is impressionable and interprets things narrowly, be judicious about how much you share. Research suggests that a child’s interpretation of social messages about drug use (what is safe etc.) has a great deal to do with whether they use or not.
  • Don’t romanticize your experiences with drugs and alcohol or make it sound fun — even if you didn’t get caught and it was fun.
  • Focus on what could have happened or how your behavior could have hurt other people.
  • Explain to your child why drinking or using drugs wouldn’t be a good idea for her.

Learn more about talking to children about drugs and alcohol at Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

How have you handled the drugs and alcohol talk with your child? Did you share your own experience? Leave a comment.