Laying the groundwork - Talking to your teenager



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

  •  set a positive example and get involved in our children’s lives;
  •  get involved in their activities, know their friends, know where they’re going and
    what they’re doing;
  •  create clear, consistent expectations and enforce them;
  •  talk early and often about drugs;
  •  discuss the consequences of drug use;
  • show we care enormously about what choices our children make about drugs.

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 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.


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:

  •  Family meetings. Held once a week at a mutually-agreed-upon time, family
    meetings provide a forum for discussing triumphs, grievances, projects,
    questions about discipline, and any topic of concern to a family member. Ground
    rules help. Everyone gets a chance to talk; one person talks at a time without
    interruption; everyone listens, and only positive, constructive feedback is allowed.
    To get resistant children to join in, combine the get- together with incentives such
    as post-meeting pizza or assign them important roles such as recording
    secretary or rule enforcer.
  •  Regular parent-child rituals. These eliminate the need for constant planning and
    rearranging. Perhaps you can take the long way home from school once a week
    and get ice cream or make a weekly visit to the library together. Even a few
    minutes of conversation while you’re cleaning up after dinner or right before
    bedtime can help the family catch up and establish the open communication that
    is essential to raising drug-free children.


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 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 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

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.


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.


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 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:
 “I took drugs because some of my friends used them, and I thought I needed to
in order to fit in. In those days, people didn’t know as much as they do now about
all the bad things that can happen when you smoke marijuana or do other drugs.
If I’d known then what I know now, I never would have tried them, and I’ll do
everything I can to keep you away from drugs.”

  •  “Everyone makes mistakes, and when I used drugs, I made a big one. I’m telling
    you about this, even though it’s embarrassing, because I love you, and I want to
    save you from making the same stupid decision that I made when I was your
    age. You can learn from my mistakes without repeating them.”
  •  “I did drugs because I was bored and wanted to take some risks, but I soon
    found that I couldn’t control the risks — they were controlling me. There are
    much better ways of challenging yourself than doing drugs.”
  •  “At your age, between homework, friends, sports, and other interests, there are a
    lot of fun things going on. If you get into taking drugs, you’re pretty much giving
    up those other things, because you stop being able to concentrate, and you can’t
    control your moods or keep to a schedule. You’ll miss out on all these great
    experiences, and you’ll never get those times back.”
  •  “You don’t know how your body will react to drugs. Some people can get
    addicted really quickly and can get really sick even using a drug for the first time.”
  •  “I started drinking/doing drugs when I was young, and I’ve been battling them
    ever since. They made me miss a big part of growing up, and every day I must
    fight with myself, so they don’t make me miss more — my job, my relationships,
    and my time with you. I love you too much to watch you set yourself on the same


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.