Should you tell your child about your past drug use?

A study was recently released that looked at the effect parents telling their children about their past substance use had on the young person’s beliefs and behaviours around drugs. The research received a bit of media attention and pushed the line that admitting to past drug use was counterproductive.

When any research is reported on in the media it is important to go to the actual published paper and see what was exactly said before accepting the published headlines. Certainly the authors state that, based on their evidence, “parents should reflect on the potential negative impact of talking about their prior use”. They believe that in doing so there is the potential to ‘normalise’ drug use and “downplay” the negative consequences of using substances. That said, they have also made very clear that there are many limitations to this study. The major one is that the parent-child communication was not observed, it was all self-report data provided by the child. As far as I could see there was also no information collected on the context of the conversation.

Don’t get me wrong – this is an interesting study and as the authors say, it illustrates that some messages provided by parents “may be helpful and others may be harmful”. So what are my views on the topic?

First off it is important to remember that most parents do not have a problem answering this question as most people have never experimented with illegal drugs. The one illicit drug that is most likely to be used by Australian parents is cannabis, but that still is only a third of the population. That means that most Australians (two thirds of them) have not used the drug.

However, for those parents that may have experimented with illicit drugs in their youth, this is a question that they all dread their child asking. Unfortunately, it is a question that is almost inevitably raised at some stage during their child’s teenage years. When it is, essentially parents have one of three choices – they can tell the truth, they can avoid the question and hope it goes away or they can lie through their teeth! It really is a dilemma and one for which there is no simple answer.

Every parent will need to deal with this question in their own way. Each family is unique and there are so many different ways of handling this problem and the outcome will be different each time, depending on so many factors. In my book ‘Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs’ I told the story of Nicole and Peter who decided to deal with the issue in their own way:

Nicole is a mother of three and back in the late 1980s and early 90s was a big party girl. Together with her then boyfriend, now husband, Peter, she was amongst the first generation of regular ecstasy users who attended large dance parties and inner city nightclubs. Her drug of choice at that time was ecstasy, but she also used a variety of other drugs including cannabis, speed and LSD.
Her eldest daughter, Hannah, is now 15 years old and is getting to the age where she is beginning to ask questions about her parents’ partying years. Nicole is now facing the dilemma of how to talk to her teenage daughter about her drug use during a significant period of her and her husband’s life. Should she tell the truth, avoid the subject or simply lie and say that it never happened.
“This time was always at the back of my mind, even during the early days of my drug use,” Nicole told me. “What was I going to tell my children when the time came when they asked me about my past?” 
She decided to lie. In fact she has become extremely ‘hardline’ when it comes to the messages that she gives to her children about drugs. As far as Nicole is concerned, drugs are extremely dangerous and she wants her children not to use them.
“If I found out that Hannah was experimenting with any drug I would be horrified. I know it sounds hypocritical, particularly with my history, but as I’ve got older I’ve really become more and more worried about my children and drugs. Maybe it’s because I know so much more about them and the risks involved with their use. I simply don’t want my children to use.”
The effect that this hardline has had on Hannah is interesting. A bright girl who is doing very well at school she told me that illegal drugs are not a part of her life, although she has just got into the party scene and drinks alcohol occasionally – something her mother frowns on.
“I would never talk about drugs with Mum and Dad,” she told me. “Mum has made it very clear about how she feels and often talks about people she knew who took drugs that got into real trouble. I can’t even imagine what she would do if I did try drugs and she ever found out.”
Unfortunately Nicole’s attitude towards drugs appears to have caused a real barrier in terms of communication between her and her daughter.
“I have a friend who I think has a problem with drinking,” confessed Hannah. “She drinks every weekend and I do worry about her. I’d love to be able to talk to Mum about it but I wouldn’t dare. I couldn’t trust her to keep it secret and not tell my friend’s mum. In so many other ways I have a great relationship with Mum but I wouldn’t even try to talk to her about this – she would just over-react and hit the roof.”

What is difficult to fathom out with Nicole and Peter is that when asked about their drug use and the experiences they had during that time they both talk about it in a very positive way. Her justification for lying to her daughter is that she wanted to scare her and if she had told her the truth it would have simply made the drug too attractive.

Nicole and Peter are not alone in this type of major turnaround. There are many parents who did experiment and had ‘positive’ drug experiences and then when they have children of their own and they start to get older their memories of their own drug use fade and they become very ‘anti-drug’. My concern is what would happen if Hannah ever found out the truth about her parents’ past? The breakdown of trust here could be devastating for this close-knit family.

So what is the answer?

In my humble opinion I actually believe that honesty is the best policy. Now this doesn’t mean that you should be ramming the fact that you once had a puff of a joint in 1983 down your children’s throat. However, if you’re asked a direct question by your child, I believe that you should answer it honestly.

We know that by far one of the most important elements of a positive parent-child relationship is honesty and trust. When you ask your child a question about something that they have done you would like them to answer it honestly, doesn’t your child deserve the same respect?

So if you have used drugs what should you say? To my mind the most important thing to focus on in your answer is why you stopped using (if you’re still using illicit drugs there are a whole pile of other issues that need to be talked about in another blog entry!). If you think about it, the reasons you give to your teenager about why you stopped are so important and say so much about the ‘real’ risks associated with drug use. It’s also an honest and real approach and young people, in my experience, really appreciate that. Some of the reasons that parents have given to their children for stopping include the following:

“I used cannabis once or twice and it just made me feel really sick. Some of my friends really liked it but it just wasn’t me – I didn’t enjoy smoking and I made the decision not to do it again.”
“Cannabis was a big part of my life for a couple of years. I used almost every week until I finally realized that I wasn’t doing anything else. I only hung out with other cannabis users and I lost contact with other friends. Although it was fun at the beginning it certainly wasn’t at the end.”
“Drugs can be fun. I certainly had a good time for a while but the bad experiences started to outweigh the good and I just got bored with the whole thing.”
“I stopped smoking when a very close friend of mine got busted. He got caught smoking a bong in a park and found himself at a police station. It wasn’t until that happened that I really realized that cannabis was illegal and you could really get into trouble if you got caught. It just wasn’t worth the risk.”
“I stopped using when I met your mum. She thought drugs was for losers and forced me to make a decision – it was her or the dope. I chose your mum!”

All parents want an honest and open relationship with their child. If, god forbid, something should ever go wrong and a child needs help with an alcohol or other drug problem, every parent hopes that they are the first port of call for their child when it comes to help and advice. However, if you’re not honest with them, why in heavens would they ever be honest with you?


  1. Hi Paul, thanks for posting this. I also read that study and have been thinking about it.

    I'm glad you feel honesty is the best policy. Where I differ from your advice is that I accept that honesty may not need to include a negative spin or a 'I stopped because'. Why do you assume that all parents dread this question, as if all parents believe their drug use was morally wrong or problematic or that they regret it now?

    There are actually parents who continue to use illicit drugs in a responsible manner. They keep it very quiet because being a parent who also uses illicit drugs (even if occasionally and without ever shirking from any child-related responsibilities) is highly stigmatised.

    I'm not a parent but my strong belief is that I would want my children, as they grow up, to understand that there is an innate human desire for new experiences and altered conscious states. Taking alcohol or other drugs to achieve these states comes with risks, but is a skill that can be taught and learnt. We don't teach growing people how to manage this stuff, just how to avoid it. Given that I value the experiences I have had using these tools, why would I want to tell my child that they are not worth it, and perpetuate the dominant discourse that 'drugs are bad'?

    Wouldn't they be more likely to wait until an older age if I was honest and presented myself as someone they could get very informed advice? Surely waiting til older is a better goal than preaching abstinence.

  2. I suspect more parents dread their children's questions about alcohol than questions about any illicit drugs they may have taken... Drunken behaviours can so easily be embarrassing, especially when we're young and still imperfectly acculturated; and especially in countries like Australia, where our drinking cultures are much more Dionysian and less integrated than in mainland Europe.

    In contrast, I can't imagine many of us being embarrassed that we broke some Misuse of Drugs Act. It's not like assaulting someone, or breaking into their homes and robbing them. Most of us who enjoyed "ecstasy" when it was still MDMA, and LSD and mushrooms, and the occasional joint, can remember life-affirming parties, dancing with friends until we made the sun rise, feeling deep connection with each other and with the magic of life.

    A drug's legal status tells us so little about its risks and possible outcomes, and even less about its potential benefits, that most of us simply don't respect those laws. Certainly not enough to try to work out what was legal back when we did it.

    Surely, when we talk with younger people about choices we made when we were their age, when we think about how we behaved and what that means for who we've become, we'd ask, did we respect each other, and look out for each other? Respecting each other as people is much more important to me than respecting the ever-changing drug laws!

    Prohibition doesn't let us grow up, but seeks to ban choices we may regret. Obedience is an immature virtue at best... and often much worse.

    I don't parent, but I do sometimes have occasion to talk with other peoples' kids about why I (still) value my psychedelic experiences. I tell them there's no rush to start exploring -- the more you can bring to the experience, the more benefit you can achieve; and also, computer games are undoubtedly better for the developing adolescent brain than psychoactive substances like alcohol, right?

    But when they feel ready, I totally understand that they may be curious about the full range of mind-body states, and about the nature of reality. They may like to explore both, using techniques like meditation and prayer, ecstatic dance, and yes, currently illegal psychoactive substances. I sometimes suggest they browse through this special issue of the MAPS Bulletin on psychedelics and self-discovery.

    More relevant to our discussion here, MAPS -- the Multidisciplinary Assocation for Psychedelic Studies -- also devoted an issue of its Bulletin to the voices of psychedelic parents and their children, some of whom feel they're "parenting in a war zone".



Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

What should parents say when their teen says "But it's not smoking" when they find out they're vaping?

Parents of Year 9s: Prepare yourself for a bumpy year when it comes to sleepovers, parties and gatherings

4 lines your teen is likely to throw at you when it comes to alcohol and parties and 4 responses to throw back!