Coming clean with your teens

When my 13-year-old daughter, Louisa, stayed home from school recently with a cold, she and I spent the afternoon watching Sixteen Candles, the 1984 coming-of-age movie directed by John Hughes.

I loved the movie in high school and hadn’t seen it for years. I was struck by two things: one, how much cursing was allowed in PG movies in the ’80s; and two: how watching a movie that you liked as a teen presents a perfect opportunity to talk to your teen about alcohol and drug use.

In the movie, a horde of high school students descend on the cool guy’s house while his parents are gone. As the teens got wasted and trashed the place, I couldn’t help but interject comments like, “They’re making some really bad decisions,” and, “That’s what can happen at a party like that. People show up who weren’t invited, and it easily gets out of control.”

My daughter knows I don’t approve of kids drinking or using drugs because we talk about it often. It’s easy for me to be open with her because I don’t have anything to hide; I didn’t drink until I turned 21, and I’ve never used illegal drugs. But I know the issue is trickier for parents who did use as teens, and who want their kids to avoid repeating their experiences. What do these parents do when their tweens or teens ask probing questions?

Carol Falkowski, director of the alcohol and drug abuse division of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, says no definitive answer exists to the question of whether parents should disclose their prior drug or alcohol use; it depends on the parent and the child.

“It’s a personal choice for parents, the extent to which they disclose all kinds of dangerous, stupid things they have done in their past,” Falkowski says.

“Science is consistently unclear about which is the best course of action.”

According to a recent national survey released by Hazelden, the Minnesota-based addiction treatment center, 63 percent of teens said they felt hearing about their parents’ use as teens would make them more responsible about their own use; and 67 percent of teens said their parents already had told them about their youthful experiences with alcohol and drugs.

Falkowski says although teens may advocate for parental honesty, they sometimes use their parents’ behavior as a smokescreen for their own use. If parents do disclose information, she says, they should focus less on specifics and instead emphasize that all teens make mistakes. Parents also should recognize that a one-time conversation isn’t enough; it’s beneficial to have ongoing conversations that evolve as the child matures.

“Kids are growing up in a world awash with pills and available drugs. Rather than worry about what exactly is the correct way is to approach it, just get out there and have the conversations. The worst thing a parent can do is to say nothing,” says Falkowski.

Jay Jaffee, chemical health coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health, says parents should tell the truth about their past behaviors — to a point — if asked, because they’ll lose credibility if a teen finds out later that the parent lied. Instead of explaining details, though, parents should emphasize that they would act differently, knowing what they know, and they should turn the conversation around to the teen’s perceptions of drug and alcohol use to clear up any misinformation.

“It’s important to be honest, but not to make [drug or alcohol use] sound like a wonderful thing,” he says.

Jaffee says research shows that parents who drink and use drugs heavily have kids who do the same. This doesn’t mean parents should abstain from using alcohol, but they should consider what messages they send by how and when they use it. Research also shows that children live up to parents’ expectations. So, if parents tell their kids, “We know you’re going to drink because everybody does,” they shouldn’t be surprised when it happens. Conversely, when they say, “Our rule is that you do not drink or use drugs,” those teens are far less likely to use.

“We as parents are far more important than we gives ourselves credit for,” Jaffee says. “It’s clear that they’re paying more attention to us than we think.”
This was comforting news for me to hear, knowing that Louisa is three years from her 16th birthday. We have time to watch many more movies, and keep the conversations going.

Joy Riggs lives in Northfield with her husband and three children, ages 13, 11, and 9.

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