Friday, February 3, 2012

What to Talk About When We Talk to Our Kids About Drugs

As a clinical social worker, who has spent almost three decades working with individuals with drug or alcohol problems, I've accumulated quite a collection of articles covering almost every aspect of substance abuse including those which focus on helping parents talk to their kids about the pitfalls and dangers associated with drinking and drugging.  And, sadly, because this topic remains just as pressing as it did then when I first started practicing as it does now, I thought I'd share some of the guidelines I've used with families over the years.

1.  Never, ever humiliate your child. Do your best not to "talk down" or be disparaging. You may be angry and upset, but hit the "pause button" before resorting to threats or remarks you may regret once having said them.  Remember, that toning down your reactivity is the surest way to open up new possibilities and dialogue. And you want to keep the conversation going.

2.  Never, ever confront your child while he or she is under the influence of alcohol or drugs (unless, of course, you think your child needs immediate medical attention).  It's important that when you have that talk that he or she is clear headed and sober.

3.  If your teenager is in emotional pain, let them feel it.  As a parent, I know there is nothing worse than watching your child struggle.  Our impulse is to rescue them.  However, if we don't let them struggle they will never learn how to manage for themselves and work through life's difficult patches.  This is not to suggest that we abandon them in their moments of need.  Rather, we can show them our love by letting them know that we have confidence and faith in their ability to solve their own problems.  Remind them that the pain is not there to punish them.  But is meant instead to show them where and when the healing can begin.  There is always another choice out there.

4.  As a parent, it's important to stay flexible but that does not mean be overly permissive.  You've got to have a bottom line. Your child needs to know, in no uncertain terms, what your limits of tolerance are.  How else can you maintain your integrity and reliability in their eyes?

5. Don't be a snoop. Be vigilant and on top of things, but don't micromanage or violate your child's privacy.  So avoid doing a reconnaissance of their room and reading their diaries.  It will only come back to bite you.

6.  The most common mistake parents make with their kids is to make threats they can't enforce.  Before establishing consequences for any kind of acting-out behavior, be sure you can follow through on them.  It's also a good idea to try and include your kids in the conversation as to what they think would make an appropriate consequence for them breaking or bending the rules.  And if two parents are involved they both need to agree on the mode of discipline that's to be enforced. That's crucial.  All too often parents are at odds with each other.  This kind of "splitting" only confuses kids and leaves them feeling as if no one is in charge.  And they're usually right.

7.  Don't vilify your child.  They're not a monster, although they can be acting like one.  Can you keep in mind that it's the drugs or alcohol which is distorting their behavior? Can you remember to tell them that you love them but hate what drugs are doing to them?

8.  Drugs and alcohol are powerful stuff and require "big medicine" to confront them, so if things begin to spin out of control don't try and go it alone. Get help.  If your child is at risk, don't hesitate to reach out and seek professional help.

(The inspiration for this list originates with the work of Dick Schaefer and his book, "Choices and Consequences:  What To Do When A Teenager Uses Alcohol/Drugs.)

Amy bows low at the feet of all her holy teachers.

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