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Talking to your teen about drug and alcohol abuse.

July 24, 2013

It’s very sad when we lose a promising young life, and even sadder when the life is lost because of the young person’s own actions. Cory Monteith, who played the character “Finn” on the wildly popular television show Glee, died of an apparent overdose of heroin and alcohol over the weekend. Monteith had reportedly been open about his struggles with alcohol and other drugs, and had recently received treatment. News reports after his death said that he had been doing well since treatment, and was staying away from the substances that bedeviled him. And yet it appears that somehow, things fell apart for him.

The abuse of alcohol and other drugs is an ever-present danger for youth. And it is often the first domino in a cascade of many other dangerous behaviors. Kids are risk takers by nature, especially during the years when it is developmentally appropriate for them to experiment with different behaviors, as they establish their own independent identity. Adolescence is also a time when kids feel invincible and the warnings of parents, grandparents, teachers and other adults often go unheeded because teens and young adults feel like those bad things are more likely to happen to someone else.

Having the “talk.” Again.

We’ve all heard about having “the talk” with our kids. We’re often referring to a talk about reproduction and sexual behavior, but sometimes we approach other topics with the same plan: pick a time, raise the subject, sweat through the awkward beginning, spit out some information and end with a version of “good talk, you can ask me questions anytime.”

Knowing how to communicate with your teen

Adolescents and pre-adolescents learn best in repeated conversations, and discussions must include dialogue to make a difference. A list of facts or warnings about consequences is the least effective way to reach kids and teens. They need to know the relevance of what they learn in terms of the immediate impact on their own lives. This is why the adults around them need to seize opportunities, like current events, to open and continue dialogue. Kids also need help operationalizing what they learn. That is, they need to discuss what they are going to do with the information they receive.

A recent blog by Dr. Claire McCarthy on MD Mama has some very helpful ideas for talking with your kids about substance abuse, addiction and other aspects of their health and well-being. I would add the following to her suggestions:

Model healthy behavior and healthy choices for your kids. If you have alcohol in your home, discuss responsible alcohol use with your kids. Let your kids see that you don’t drink and drive and don’t drink to excess. In the U.S., “responsible use” means respecting the legal drinking age. I agree with Dr. McCarthy that parents who let underage kids drink are taking terrible risks and setting a bad example.

Teach and model healthy coping mechanisms. Let your children know what you do when you feel overwhelmed or stressed. Help them develop coping mechanisms early. When a child has tantrums, teach them to express their thoughts in words, help them use exercise to burn off steam, and show them how deep breathing or being in nature is calming and restorative. When they face disappointment in life, talk about how you overcome disappointment. Teach them to recognize and express their emotions. Let them know how you have coped with losses. Talking about healthy coping opens the door to discussions about negative coping, and offers alternatives.

Teach kids that emotions pass. One of the unspoken lessons in letting your kids know you’re sad or angry is letting them see you get over being sad or angry. Talk with them about how that happens and teach them to trust that if they feel bad now, they will be able to feel better later without resorting to alcohol or other drugs or dysfunctional behavior.

Let them know that getting help and asking for help is OK. If you’ve had counseling, sharing that with your children gives them permission to ask for help. You don’t have to share the gory details - it’s enough to say that when you were unhappy or worried, you talked it over with someone and felt better.  It lets them know that even someone they admire and love struggles, and it lets them know that problems can be resolved.

Listen at least twice as much as you talk. Make time to demonstrate an interest in what your child and his/her friends are thinking, reading, listening to and doing. Go see the movies they go see (of course at a different time than they are going with their friends!) so you can talk about the situations and characters in the movie. Listen to the music they like (or at least read the lyrics). Before you express any opinion, listen to their opinions and explore how they came to think what they think.

If you have more than one child, carve out some individual time to spend with each one. My son and I used to have “Brandon’s Day” where just the two of us would spend the day together with him choosing all the activities including where we went, what we did, what we ate and what we talked about. If you don’t have a whole day, do a half-day or an evening. I loved those days, and learned a lot about him every time.

Remember that you, and your opinions and values, matter most to your kids.  They are listening and watching us even when it seems like they are tuned out. This is the good news and the bad news. If you are inconsistent, they’ll notice it. However, if you treat yourself and your family with love and respect and live by your values, that will speak very loudly to your kids.

We can’t have “the talk” about any topic and expect it to make much of a difference. Daily life requires daily discussion. Kids make choices over and over, and after a certain age, we’re not in the room to guide those choices. But, we can have a cumulative influence by making any topic safe to discuss any time.

It takes a little practice to refrain from freaking out when your child or teen brings up a challenging or controversial topic. The next challenge is to fast-forward past your “lecture mode.” If you get past these hurdles and open an on-going discussion, you can learn the real challenges and choices your child is facing. You can remind them how much they mean to you and how much you care about their wellbeing. Then, you can share your wisdom with your child. Share it in bite-size pieces and check to see that they’ve heard you and you’ve heard them.

This process will do much more than share your guidance with your child. It will teach your kids how to think, consider, and come to a decision for themselves. Helping them learn that is the gold medal of parenting!