Growing Up Drug-Free: A Parent's Guide to Prevention – 1998

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Chapter 2: Laying The Groundwork

We, as parents, are the most important role models in our children's lives. What we say and do about drugs matters a lot when it comes to the choices our children make. We can:

Children learn by example. They adopt the values we demonstrate through our actions. As they grow, they're impressed by our concern for others when we bring soup to a sick neighbor and by our honesty when we admit making a mistake.

Although we believe these traits are important, it's not always easy to be consistent. Telling a friend you're younger than you really are sends a confusing message to your child — isn't it wrong to lie? If you forbid smoking in the house, how can you allow your friends to break the rules? If you say that drinking alcohol is a serious matter, how can you laugh uproariously at TV and movie drunks? Because alcohol is off-limits for children, even asking them to fetch a beer from the refrigerator or to mix drinks at an adult party can be confusing.

Children who decide not to use alcohol or other drugs often make this decision because they have strong convictions against the use of these substances — convictions based on a value system. You can make your family's values clear by explaining why you choose a particular course of action and how that choice reflects your values. If you're walking down the street together and spot a blind person attempting to cross, you can both offer to help him and then take the opportunity to discuss why it's important to support those in need. You can also explore moral issues by posing hypothetical questions at the dinner table or in the car — for example, "What would you do if the person ahead of you in the movie line dropped a dollar bill?" or "What would you do if your friend wanted you to skip class with him and play video games instead?" Concrete examples like these make the abstract issue of values come alive.

Planning for togetherness

Sometimes it's frustrating how few chances there are to have conversations about drugs with our children. In our busy culture, with families juggling the multiple demands of work, school, after-school activities, and religious and social commitments, it can be a challenge for parents and children to be in the same place at the same time. To ensure that you have regular get togethers with your children, try to schedule:

Making your position clear

When it comes to dangerous substances like alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, don't assume that your children know where you stand. They want you to talk to them about drugs. State your position clearly; if you're ambiguous, children may be tempted to use. Tell your children that you forbid them to use alcohol, tobacco, and drugs because you love them. (Don't be afraid to pull out all the emotional stops. You can say, "If you took drugs it would break my heart.") Make it clear that this rule holds true even at other people's houses. Will your child listen? Most likely. According to research, when a child decides whether or not to use alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, a crucial consideration is "What will my parents think?"

Also discuss the consequences of breaking the rules — what the punishment will be and how it will be carried out. Consequences must go hand-in-hand with limits so that your child understands that there's a predictable outcome to his choosing a particular course of action. The consequences you select should be reasonable and related to the violation. For example, if you catch your son smoking, you might "ground" him, restricting his social activities for two weeks. You could then use this time to show him how concerned you are about the serious health consequences of his smoking, and about the possibility that he'll become addicted, by having him study articles, books, or video tapes on the subject.

Whatever punishment you settle on shouldn't involve new penalties that you didn't discuss before the rule was broken — this wouldn't be fair. Nor should you issue empty threats ("Your father will kill you when he gets home!"). It's understandable that you'd be angry when house rules are broken, and sharing your feelings of anger, disappointment, or sadness can have a powerfully motivating effect on your child. Since we're all more inclined to say things we don't mean when we're upset, it's best to cool off enough to discuss consequences in a matter-of-fact way.

Contrary to some parents' fears, your strict rules won't alienate your children. They want you to show you care enough to lay down the law and to go to the trouble of enforcing it. Rules about what's acceptable, from curfews to insisting that they call in to tell you where they are, make children feel loved and secure. Rules about drugs also give them reasons to fall back on when they feel tempted to make bad decisions. A recent poll showed that drugs are the number-one concern of young people today. Even when they appear nonchalant, our children need and want parental guidance. It does not have to be preachy. You will know best when it is more effective to use an authoritarian tone or a gentler approach.

Always let your children know how happy you are that they respect the rules of the household by praising them. Emphasize the things your children do right instead of focusing on what's wrong. When parents are quicker to praise than to criticize, children learn to feel good about themselves, and they develop the self-confidence to trust their own judgment.

What your own alcohol, tobacco, and drug use tells your children

Drinking alcohol is one of the accepted practices of adulthood. It is legal for adults to have wine with dinner, beer at the end of a long week, or cocktails at a dinner party. But drinking to the point of losing control sends the wrong message to children, as does reaching for a drink to remedy unhappiness or tension.

Although it is legal for adults to smoke cigarettes, the negative impact tobacco has on a smoker's health is well documented. If a child asks his parents why they smoke, they may explain that when they began, people didn't understand how unhealthy smoking is and that once a smoker starts, it's very hard to stop. Young people can avoid making the same mistake their parents did by never starting and risking addiction.

When parents smoke marijuana or use other illegal drugs, they compromise not only their children's sense of security and safety, but the children's developing moral codes as well. If you use illegal drugs, it is self-deluding to imagine that your children won't eventually find out. When they do, your parental credibility and authority will go out the window. If their parents — their closest and most important role models — don't respect the law, then why should they? Parents who abuse alcohol or other drugs should seek professional help. This help is available at treatment centers and from support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Their children also may benefit from professional counseling and support from groups such as Families Anonymous, Al- Anon, and Nar-Anon.

What to say when your child asks, "Did you ever use drugs?"

Among the most common drug-related questions asked of parents is "Did you ever use drugs?" Unless the answer is "no," it's difficult to know what to say because nearly all parents who used drugs don't want their children to do the same thing. Is this hypocritical? No. We all want the best for our children, and we understand the hazards of drug use better than we did when we were their age and thought we were invincible. To guide our children's decisions about drugs, we can now draw on credible real-life examples of friends who had trouble as a result of their drug use: the neighbor who caused a fatal car crash while high; the family member who got addicted; the teen who used marijuana for years, lost interest in school, and never really learned how to deal with adult life and its stresses.

Some parents who used drugs in the past choose to lie about it, but they risk losing their credibility if their children discover the truth. Many experts recommend that when a child asks this question, the response should be honest.

This doesn't mean that parents need to recount every moment of their experiences. As in conversations about sex, some details should remain private, and you should avoid providing more information than is actually sought by your child. Ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand exactly why and what a child is asking before answering questions about your past drug use, and limit your response to that information.

This discussion provides a good opportunity for parents to speak frankly about what attracted them to drugs, why drugs are dangerous, and why they want their children to avoid making the same mistake. There's no perfect way to get this message across, only approaches that seem more fitting than others. Some suggestions:

A mother looks back

Anne D. of Marietta, Georgia, mother of a son and two daughters, ages 22, 21, and 20:

"My three kids are all in college now, so we're testing what they learned at home when they were growing up.

"I've always tried to talk with them, not at them, and to demonstrate the values our family thinks are important. For example, when we were on vacation, someone left a camera behind in our room, and I made a point of saying 'This isn't ours let's let them know at the desk.' I tried to show how I value honesty.

"Since they were young, we've discussed healthy lifestyles and habits, and when they were in middle school, we started talking about how they should call home from parties if drugs were present. I'm not sure if we picked them up every time they were at a party where there were drugs, but I'm sure we did most of the time. High school was an especially challenging time for my kids because I was getting divorced then. But they got through it fine, and I think it's because they had a good foundation of values to fall back on."

How grandparents can help raise drug-free children

Grandparents play a special part in a child's life and, unlike parents, grandparents have had years to prepare for their role. They've been through the ups and downs of child-rearing and bring a calmer, more seasoned approach to their interactions with their grandchildren. They, as well as other extended family members, can serve as stable, mature role models, especially if they need to step in to assume some of the responsibilities of the child's parents.

These important elders have one advantage over parents: Their relationships with their grandchildren are less complicated, less judgmental, and less tied to day-to-day stresses. Grandparents can use their positions of trust and intimacy to reinforce the same lessons in self-respect and healthy living that children are learning from their parents. When grandparents show concern with questions like "Has anyone ever tried to sell you drugs?" or "Why are your eyes so red?" they may be more likely to hear honest answers — especially if they indicate that they are willing to listen in confidence, and will not be quick to judge or punish. Their grandchildren may be less defensive and more likely to listen closely to their advice about avoiding drugs. Grandparents can also help reinforce positive messages and praise their grandchildren when they do well.


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