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Should You Tell Your Kid If YOU Did Drugs as a Teen?

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Kate Tuttle: Remember those anti-drug public service ads from the '80s? One of the most memorable showed a father finding his teen son's stash and angrily confronting him about it, only to face the boy's furious, devastating rejoinder, "I learned it by watching you, Dad!"

Mom and Daughter
As a teen, I found the ad as unintentionally hilarious as "Reefer Madness"; thinking of it again as the mother of a teen, it brings fear to my heart. Whether it's underage drinking, smoking pot or having sex, every parent will one day face a teenager they're hoping won't do the very things they did at that age. And unless we're phenomenally lucky, we'll one day hear the questions: "Did you ever smoke pot? Were there keg parties when you were in high school?"

Actually, we may be lucky to hear those questions: When teens can talk to their parents about such potentially explosive topics, it means we still have their trust. Dr. Perri Klass, a pediatrician who pens a regular column in the New York Times, wrote earlier this month that it's up to parents to live up to that trust -- though (as she acknowledges) that's easier said than done.

Klass says that it's particularly tricky given the brain development of teenagers -- perversely, the pleasure centers of the brain develop long before the areas that control good judgment and risk assessment. Parents have always intuitively understood this, which is why so many of us may be tempted to dodge or fudge the truth when asked about our own history with drugs, sex or alcohol. But Klass, along with the other pediatricians and psychiatrists she talks to in the column, advises against lying.

What matters most, they say, is listening to your child and asking why the question is being asked; as Klass points out, a child who asks a parent this question may be worrying over how and when to bring it up. Don't assume that the agonizing and the self-consciousness are all on your conflicted, guilty parental side. Treat the question with respect and (as the experts would say) use it to keep the conversation going. It may not be a question you particularly want to be asked, but it's a larger conversation that, as parents, we know we need to encourage.

And if your teen tries to pull an "I learned it from you" move, be calm and stay on message. As one of Klass's experts points out, "The kid's trying to divert the attention from an appropriate intervention by a parent." In such cases, the parent's response should be clear: "We're not going to discuss what I did, we're going to discuss what you did."

Being honest doesn't mean giving permission. But it does give you a solid base from which to both give and demand respect and truthfulness from your child. As for the PSA's final message -- "Parents who use drugs have kids who use drugs" -- the evidence Klass cites suggests that parents who provide honest information and model responsible behavior can lower their child's risk of substance abuse.

For additional specific tips on talking to teens about drugs, Klass recommends the websites teens.drugabuse.gov and teen-safe.org.


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2 comments so far | Post a comment now
XXXX July 30, 2010, 8:36 AM

YES. BE TRUTHFUL

Lindsaydianne July 31, 2010, 6:05 PM

You know… These articles never cease to astound me, though I should be used to it by now.
If you want your child to be safe around cars, would you tell them the ways to exist around cars safely? Or would you tell them nothing at all in hopes that they’ll never encounter one?
Head in the sand parenting isn’t parenting at all.


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