10 tips for parents around alcohol and other drugs

Adolescence is such a difficult time for both teens and their parents. As their mind and body is changing, the child is trying to work out exactly where they fit in the world, struggling to establish an identity that is separate and distinct from that of their parents. At the same time parents are desperately trying to stay connected to a creature that they sometimes barely recognize as the little boy or girl that they seemed to have a loving and warm relationship with only a short time before! When parents contact me to discuss the problems with their teen (particularly in relation to alcohol and other drugs) I usually feel pretty helpless. Firstly, I am not a psychologist or counsellor and don't have training in assisting parents (or young people) in that way, and secondly, when I talk to those professionals who do have the expertise they are very clear that there aren't simple answers to these type of problems and usually the family is just going to have to 'ride it out'!

That said, when it comes to the alcohol and other drug area I have come up with my top ten tips for parents. They're certainly not going to solve all the problems that parents may face in this area but they do provide a really good starting position ...

Talk to your child and really listen to them
This is the key to building understanding and trust in your family. The more you know about your teenager's life and their concerns, the easier it will be for you to pick up a problem before it gets too big to deal with effectively. Get to know all that you can about your children, without being too intrusive or trying to be their 'best friend'. By showing interest, and being genuine about it, it shows them that you love them. Make sure that you ask them about things that are important to them - you may not really like the music they listen to or the TV programs or movies they like watching, but for most teens those kind of things are far more important than what went on at school that day. And remember, you may not get a lot out of them about what they're doing, but ask about their friends and peers and the floodgates are likely to open!

When you go to talk to your child about alcohol and other drugs – choose a good time
Constantly be on the look out for opportunities to talk about alcohol and other drugs - if the topic comes up in a TV program, ask them what they think about the subject. But be sure you don't force the issue, if they don't want to talk about it at that time, move on. These conversations should be natural and should never be a chore for either party if at all possible.
If you suspect or find your teenager has been drinking or using other drugs give yourself time to calm down and think through what is happening if you are upset. Don't react on the spur of the moment or when you and your teenager are not at your best. Remember this mantra - 'Stop, breathe and don't panic'! Strong reactions due to fear are natural but are not necessarily going to help the situation. There is a very real danger that a big argument may put you in a situation where you say things you don’t mean and may harm your relationship with your child.

Keep informed
This will help you answer questions that your teenager may ask. It will also help you work out your own views about drugs well before you have to discuss the issues with them. Don't rely on friends or the media to get information and if you have to use these sources, be critical of what you see, read or hear. Always use a number of sources for information before you make your mind up about an issue.

Set a good example
Keep your own use of alcohol, medicines and other drugs within safe and sensible limits. Young people learn most about the world by watching those around them. Overuse of prescription medicines, over-the-counter medications or alcohol sends a very strong message to young people about your attitude towards drugs. One thing that many teenagers cannot tolerate is hypocrisy. Telling children you have strong anti-drug feelings and then using large amounts of painkillers or drinking to excess does not make sense to young people. Try not to make alcohol an automatic inclusion every time you get together with friends – let your teenagers that it's possible to have fun without alcohol.

Be honest about drug use
The truth about drug use is scary enough without trying to frighten your child with tales of death and destruction that may not match their own experience. The one thing that you need to try and maintain is your credibility when it comes to issues such as alcohol and other drugs. A sure-fire way of losing that is by telling tall-tales or perpetuating myths about drug use. Stick to the facts, acknowledging why some young people may use alcohol and other drugs, and then challenge this with the negative consequences. A balanced approach is much more effective and realistic.

Always be willing to be the solution but know your 'non-negotiables'
Sometimes parents forget that their children are just that – children. Adolescents, in particular, are going through a difficult time in their life and parents need to try to remember what a complicated period the teenage years were for them. Remember, you are the adult and as such there are times when it is entirely appropriate to cross the 'halfway point' and come to a compromise in an attempt to solve parent-child disputes. Every parent, however, must decide on what issues are 'non-negotiable' as far as their child is concerned and once this stand point is made clear, their child should know and respect this decision. Trying to make every issue non-negotiable will lead to constant conflict and grief. Choose your battles carefully and be willing to compromise on some issues and things should run much more smoothly.

Negotiate rules about acceptable behaviour and review them regularly
Think back to when you were a teenager and how you felt about rules. Remember that as your child grows up many rules need to be reviewed regularly and sometimes relaxed bit by bit (always remembering your 'non-negotiables'). Your teenager is on the way to becoming an adult and needs some freedom to gain the experiences that help them cope with the adult world. However, it is also important to remember that teenagers want and need limits and boundaries, so let them know what your expectations are regarding acceptable behaviour.

Be willing to say 'no' to your children
Young people who get everything they want don't usually turn out to be very happy children. Teens learn discipline, self-control and how to delay self-gratification when they are told no by their parents. It may be hard, particularly if you have a number of children and you've been through the 'teen stage' a number of times before, but saying no, meaning it and carrying it through will help you to have a happy, healthy and cooperative family.

Remember, that of all the drugs your child is most probably going to have a problem with it will most probably be alcohol
While there is a lot of concern about illegal drugs, the most harm and the greatest risk to young people comes from using legal drugs such as tobacco, medicines and of course, alcohol. However, young people want to experiment with new things and test limits, so it is not surprising that some of them may try illegal drugs. Fortunately, out of those who try, few will go on using drugs regularly and only a small number will develop serious problems. We certainly don't advertise that fact but it's true and incredibly important for parents to remember should things go amiss ...

Tell your children that they're great … at every opportunity
It is very rare that we talk about the great things our young people do. Even though we usually let them know when they are not doing the right thing, it is also very important to let them know how great they are the rest of the time. It is particularly important to tell them this when they’re not at their best. Make it a point to tell them specifically what you think is great about them. This will be more meaningful and effective for them than more generalized praise.

For more Top 10 tips and other information for parents, go to the DARTA website for a range of downloadable fact sheets.


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