Talking to Your Children About Drugs
The other “big talk” that parents frequently find difficult is the talk about drugs. Unlike the topic of sex, there's really no need to modulate your message about drugs to suit your child's age—there is nothing wrong with mentioning from day one how bad such things are for a person's health.
I might have gone a little overboard with my oldest daughter. I used to preach the evils of cigarette smoking so much that when she was barely old enough to talk she would walk up to complete strangers and chastise them. She accused them of using drugs because somewhere in our conversations I told her about nicotine.
Be aware of what your own current use of nicotine or alcohol may look like to your child. If you condemn teenage drinking but indulge in a few martinis after work, your child will spot the inconsistency right away. It's wise to practice what you preach.
Did You Inhale?
One of the biggest difficulties mothers have in talking to their children about drugs is guilt. If you were alive in the late 1960s through the 80s it's highly likely that you did some experimentation of your own. How can you tell your child to not do something that you yourself have done?
There are a couple of schools of thought on that question. Some say: It's easy! Lie about it. The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were a crazy period in the history of American society, and now that you're older you're absolved of all the stupid things you may have done back then.
On the other hand, some say that their experience taught them first-hand that experimentation with drugs can be devastating. This school of thought says that your experiences give you credibility when you speak about the dangers of drugs with your child.
In either case, what you don't want to do is glamorize or romanticize drug use. Talking about all the fun you had partying in your misspent youth is definitely not a good idea. You know that your experiments were dangerous—and you no doubt know some people who weren't lucky enough to come through the experimentation unscathed. If you choose to talk about experimenting with drugs when you were younger, those are the stories to relate. Above all, don't be ambiguous in your message: Your children will have enough temptation without having an indirect sanction from your former, less mature self.
Whatever your personal feelings about drug use among adults, your adolescent or preteen child is simply not equipped to handle the serious problems associated with drug use. And substance abuse impairs a young adult's physical, emotional, educational, and social development. Life is difficult enough at this age without adding drugs to the mix.
Don't Be an Ostrich
You may want to believe that your child is safe from experimenting with drugs. You live in a good neighborhood and your child goes to a good school, so you may try to convince yourself that everything's cool. But drug and alcohol use is rampant in all our schools. It is important to talk openly with your children as early as possible, without being overly preachy. You want to convey a sense of trust that they will make the right decisions when they are not under your roof.
Watch out if your child starts to show major changes in attitude and disposition. It may just be the preteen blues, but if your child becomes moody and secretive, and schoolwork starts to suffer, you'll want to investigate the possibility of drugs or alcohol in his life.
Making It Easier for Your Child to “Just Say No”
The best thing you can do to protect your child is to help him develop a good self-image. Praise your child for the good things he does and make sure he feels part of something special. A family offers a safe haven for children during the difficult teen and young adult years when drug and alcohol abuse is most likely to occur.
Teenagers are painfully aware that they have little status. They want freedom but can't really do anything about it. It is very enticing to avoid these uncomfortable feelings by numbing them with drugs or alcohol. And teenagers sometimes think that trying alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs is a way of showing that they're grown up. In addition, teenagers tend to believe they're invincible—which is likely to make them minimize the dangers that drugs present.
Opening the Discussion
Talking about drugs with your children is not easy. If you come across as too cool about it, you'll raise questions about your own drug use, and you'll have to find a way to deal with them. If you come across as too naive about the subject, you are going to have problems with credibility: Your child may well wonder what you could possibly know about it, if you've never had a drink or seen a drug other than aspirin in your life.
The best thing you can do is just be a mom. Speak openly about your concerns. If you can find a book about drugs and your child will cooperate, look at it together. If your child complains that he already knows everything there is to know, tell him you need to have this discussion for your peace of mind.
Talk to your children about everyday stuff and really try to listen. Then when you talk about important things you are more likely to have an impact. Otherwise, you won't be taken seriously.
What you don't want to do is repeat the mistakes of previous generations: You want to avoid the excess of that classic 1930s antidrug movie Reefer Madness, for example. Teens are too sophisticated today to fall for that movie's contrived plot about young people becoming possessed and insane by the effects of marijuana.
Children do not need condescension. They need support, trust, and reliable information. Talking about drugs with your children is a difficult task because you will feel as though what you say is going to be the deciding factor in the choices your child makes out in the world. There are so many factors that enter into one child's experimenting with drugs while another child wouldn't even consider it.
More on: Drugs and Alcohol
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motherhood © 1999 by Deborah Levine Herman. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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