“Teach your children well,” a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song famously advises. Children are impressionable, like tofu that absorbs the flavor of whatever it’s immersed in. But sadly, many children are immersed in unsavory environments.
Influence of Parental Attitudes
Some parents say they’d rather have their teens drink at home than elsewhere, where they’re in danger of driving impaired. Many parents minimize or dismiss the dangers, rationalizing that because they survived their youth, particularly if they grew up in the more freewheeling 1960s and ‘70s, their children will survive as well. But this attitude has the opposite effect of the intended one. “Parental attitudes favoring alcohol and other drug use tend to be linked with a greater likelihood of substance use by adolescents,” said a study published in May 2011 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
Conversations about drug and alcohol use between parent and child are highly influential, despite the erroneous assumption that teens aren’t listening to their parents. “Parents need to initiate age-appropriate conversations about these issues with their children at all stages of their development in order to help ensure that their children make the right decisions,” said Pamela S. Hyde of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in a 2013 news release.
How to Have the Talk
Should you decide to initiate dialogue about drug and alcohol use, teachable moments abound. For example, if there’s a news report on television about a performer’s death as a result of drug or alcohol use, if there’s a video going around on social media about a designer drug that your child might be tempted to try, believing it’s cool to do so, if they hear their friends talking about a peer who uses, those would be ideal circumstances to leap on board.
It’s never too early to begin the conversation, but it might eventually be too late. Even preschool children are savvy enough about what’s going on around them to understand more than a parent might imagine. Share your thoughts about what substances do to the body and mind. If there’s a family history addiction, let your child know the impact of hereditary susceptibility. Talk about the reasons people use, such as peer influence, boredom, self-medication, easy accessibility, the coolness factor or the seemingly low cost for some drugs.
Opening the door by asking their thoughts is an easier way into an often challenging topic for parents to broach. The single mother of an 11-year-old son, who she perceived might be easily influenced by peers, asked him what he’d say if offered drugs or alcohol. He replied, “I ain’t doing it. That ain’t cool.” Grammar aside, she was pleased with her son’s response. Even as an adult, he’s refrained from drugs and drinks responsibly.
The same young man was aware of the impact of smoking on those in his life. Both paternal grandparents died of smoking-related illness, so he chose not to smoke cigarettes. He did, however, have a “come-clean conversation” at age 16 in which he called his mother and told her that while visiting a friend, they’d smoked a cigar. She asked what he thought of it. His said, “I hated it.” She told him, “Good, don’t do it again.”
An environment of trust is essential. If children know they can openly speak with their parents about their curiosity and even experimentation, they’re less likely to hide their use. If parental response is calm, rather than angrily and punitively reactive, the child is more likely to curtail use and enter treatment if the need arises.
Many parents engage in addictive behaviors while expecting their children to abstain. Clearly, parental influence extends to their example. Children watch their parents for cues to determine behavior. Ask yourself whether you’re putting your desires before the wellbeing of your child or children by continuing to use. It doesn’t matter if the use isn’t in their presence. Children sense when something is amiss.
Clients in treatment have shared stories of parents who would party with them, wanting to play the role of cool friend rather than authority figure. Initially, they’ve relished that form of relationship, but later they recognized its detrimental impact on their lives. The good news is that, at times, parents and their children have engaged in treatment simultaneously, even going to 12-step meetings together.
An obvious downside to parental smoking, in addition to exposing children to the multiple toxins cigarettes contain, is that their children are more likely to pick up the habit as well. And the longer children are around a parent who smokes, the stronger the likelihood they’ll smoke — and smoke heavily — according to a May 2014 study from Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Though trying to protect your children from substance abuse might seem intimidating, remember they’re watching and listening. And as Crosby, Stills and Nash remind us, “Know they love you.”
By Edie Weinstein, LSW
Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1