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What should parents tell kids about past drug or alcohol use?

“Conversation about past drug and alcohol use should be done selectively,” says Dr. Joseph Lee. “It’s about sharing only the information that is important.”


What should parents tell kids about past drug or alcohol use?

It’s a question many parents dread: Out of nowhere, your child asks, “Did you smoke pot in college?” or “Did you ever get drunk in high school?”

As children get older, their questions about their parents’ past drug or alcohol use get more complicated. In households where the message about early substance use leans toward abstention, the answer given by a parent — especially one who tends to favor honesty  — can be difficult. 

Lately, after reading news reports about rising rates of overdose deaths among teens, I’ve been thinking about ways that parents can help their children avoid addiction. Could the way parents talk about their own past use make a difference?

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To get a straight answer, I called the person I figured would have the most informed response.  Joseph Lee, M.D., Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation medical director for youth continuum and author of “Recovering My Kid: Parenting Young Adults in Treatment and Beyond,” is a nationally respected expert on youth substance use and addiction. When we spoke last week, Lee listened to my question and then paused, ultimately providing a thoughtful answer that didn’t go in the direction I first expected.

MinnPost: How much information should a parent share with their child about past drug or alcohol use?

Joseph Lee: I get asked this question all the time. My answer isn’t as simple as people would like it to be. It’s much more nuanced. Before I answer, I think I should take a step back.  

MP: OK. Why is your answer more nuanced? 

JL: As a parent, the relationship you have with your children is the most important investment you are going to make in your lifetime. Having conversations about drug and alcohol use is important, but it is not the most important part of building that parent-child relationship. This is a something you build every day, year after year.

Research shows that a positive relationship between parent and child is the most powerful protective factor for limiting future problems with substance use. Even prevention programs don’t just spend all their time talking about drugs. You don’t want to do that. Instead, you want to teach your kids how to communicate, how to problem solve, how to empathize, how to come to you when they need assistance. There are so many important skills that have to be developed with your kids. You have to look at this development time as an investment in a healthy future for them — and for you.

MP: I agree that building a strong relationship with your children is important, but even if you have the best relationship in the world, you still might be called on to answer some tough questions about your past. What do you say when that happens?

JL: I’m saying that in the end, the question of, “How much to I tell my kids about my past drug and alcohol use?” is almost beside the point. The foundational relationship you build with your child from the very beginning is what’s really important. The positive messages that you share with them play a larger role in whether or not they will start use drugs and alcohol at a young age than your decision to divulge details about your own past “transgressions.” 

Before I can address the question of, “How much do I tell my kids about my past?” there are two key points I think parents should keep in mind. The first is remembering that because the relationship you build with your child is an important lifetime investment, it takes a lot of groundwork. This means starting with everything from maintaining open lines of communication to building the proper empathy skills and modeling that behavior so your child can see it in action.

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A conversation about your past drug use isn’t really going to impact a teen’s decisions about their own substance use, but a strong relationship will.

MP: What’s your second key point?

JL: The second key point is that parents have to understand why they are deciding to talk to their child about their past drug and alcohol use. Before you start this kind conversation, you should to ask yourself, “Why am I talking to my child about this? What am I hoping to accomplish? Will my personal stories achieve those ends?”

It’s like going to a business meeting. Before you speak at a meeting, you probably think about what you hope to accomplish. That way your message is more effective.

MP: Some parents choose to tell their drug- and alcohol-use stories as a way to warn their teens about making similar mistakes. What do you think about that approach?

JL: Not a lot is achieved when parents share stories about their crazy college days. Too often these conversations inadvertently slide into parents trying to prove to their teens that they were cool once, too. That shouldn’t be the point of these conversations. When a story moves in that direction, you’ve lost the why.

You don’t want to overshare. If you are in a business meeting and you are trying to impress a new client, you are not going to tell them everything you’ve ever done. That’s not the most effective way to make a point. When you talk to your kids about drugs, you don’t need to tell them your entire history. It’s just not effective.

Conversation about past drug and alcohol use should be done selectively. It’s about sharing only the information that is important. I’m a parent. My oldest is 6. I’m investing in our relationship now. There are stories from when I was in a fraternity that will go with me to my grave. They don’t fit into the context of conversations I want to someday have with my child. It doesn’t serve a why. If my purpose is to help my child or educate them about drug and alcohol use, I ask myself, “Do those stories about my past fit in?”

MP: But a kid’s question deserves an answer, right?

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JLIf you treat the parent-child relationship as an investment, you probably won’t be blindsided by your kid asking you a question you are not prepared to answer. And that answer may be different for different children. Some kids need to hear more, some kids less. I’m hoping parents truly understand that each individual child needs an individual approach.

Joseph Lee, M.D.
Joseph Lee, M.D.

For one child, the why of a story about past addiction or use might be to talk about a family member who has a history of problematic substance use. Some families have a strong history of addiction: In that case the why of your answer is very different. You may be talking about the past because you are trying to warn a child about tendencies for addiction that run through their family. It’s almost like talking about a family history of diabetes.

MP: Does a strong family history of substance use mean that parents should take a different approach in talking to their kids about these issues?

JL: While it is important to take that risk factor into account, the content of your conversations should be based on your understanding of each individual kid and of your family. There is no one-size-fits all approach. Think of it like the conversation you’re probably having about texting and driving. If your teen has a history of car accidents or has ADHD or exhibits risk-taking behavior, then your talk about the dangers of texting and driving would probably take on more urgency. As a parent, you also need to outline norms and expectations and model safe behavior for your kids. You can’t say, “Don’t text and drive” and then text and drive. Same with substance use.

MP: What about cautious teens? Is it a good idea to introduce them to alcohol at home so they don’t get into trouble when they are out in the larger world?

JL: I don’t think you have to go that far. Some kids just aren’t that interested in using. Why do you want to introduce them to alcohol? So they won’t look awkward at a dinner party? People ask me questions like, “Can my son have a glass of wine at Thanksgiving?” My advice is don’t take it to extremes with things like exposure therapy or absolute abstention. Look for the happy middle. Understand what your individual child needs. To really help your kid, you need to contextualize the risk in your family. You need to truly understand how your child’s mind works.

You also have to know your own limitations. If you have a family history of addiction I don’t think you need to serve your teen wine at Thanksgiving.

MP: But some people say that a more relaxed, “European” approach to drugs and alcohol can limit the kinds of behaviors that might encourage addiction in young people. 

JL: Addiction is not an allergy. Early exposure to drugs or alcohol doesn’t keep a kid from eventually becoming addicted. It is not exactly like sex and condoms, either. It is similar in that you have to educate and get the right safety message out here, but sex isn’t the same as substance use. Many teens are going to have sex and use substances. You can’t stop that, but you can send the right messages about safe behavior. And you don’t need to provide a substance to keep them safe from future substance use.

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MP: Are there ways that parents should approach these conversations with teens that don’t work with younger kids?

JL: By the time your kids are in high school they are going to know more than you do about drugs. You can teach them what you can, but don’t overdo it. You could damage the relationship if you overshare. It is not just hearing about a parent’s mistakes that keep a kid safe. It is the interplay of education, risk and social cohort.

MP: How does social cohort play a role in addiction?

JL: If you really want to prevent your kids from having issues with addiction, observe their behavior, understand the risks. Birds of a feather flock together. Substance use starts in middle school and early high school. Peer groups who are at high risk for using substances start finding each other in middle school and then start using substances together later. Pay attention to your kid’s social cohort, the friends they spend the most time with. Kids with friends who are skipping school, getting into trouble, using substances are far more likely to use substances themselves.

MP: Are there clear signs that indicate a kid is falling into addiction?

JL: It’s all about paying attention, taking care of each other. As a society we still haven’t really figured this out. Even with mental health we are getting so much more sophisticated than we used to be. When, for instance, a boy gets dumped by his girlfriend, we now know to worry that he is going to get depressed. We’ve learned to keep an eye open, to check out if he is OK. We tend to the relationship. But we don’t often do that with the warning signs of substance use.

MP: In other words: observe your children, model appropriate behavior, tend the relationship — and don’t focus on your past.

JL: Yes. It’s about the larger picture. Ideally very little of your face time with your kids is spent talking about drugs. Most of your conversations should be based on teaching children how to grow up, how to be resilient, to solve problems and be gracious to others. If you teach them those skills, no matter what problems arise you will have a foundation that will enable you to eventually work things out together.