What do you say if your teen asks you if you used drugs?

Without a doubt some of the most difficult conversations you're ever likely to have with your teen are going to start with them asking questions about your behaviour as an adolescent. Although these sometimes come out of nowhere, they usually arise when your child wants to do something you don't want them to do (i.e., rules and boundaries are set and they don't like them) or they have been caught doing something they shouldn't and there's been a consequence imposed. The questions may be relatively easy to deal with such as whether you got into trouble at school, or what you got up to at parties and whether you broke rules or not but, on the other hand, they may be really challenging and have to do with your sexual behaviour during that time of your life and/or your past alcohol and other drug use. Now, if you and your partner were absolute 'angels' and you never did anything wrong (and if that is the case, both of you are quite unique!), then you really don't have anything to worry about, but for most parents this is a conversation that you will have at some point or another and it is vital that you are prepared.

This is a question I get asked regularly by parents and I usually respond by asking them one simple question - "What kind of relationship do you want with your child?" Most want one that is based on open and honest communication and, if that is the case, I believe you need to tell the truth in this area. It's how you 'handle' that honesty that makes all the difference ...

I wrote about this issue a number of years ago when a study was released that examined what effect parents telling their children about their past substance use had on the young person's beliefs and behaviours around drugs. At the time, the research received a great deal of international media attention and most of that pushed the line that admitting to past drug use was counterproductive, i.e., there was the potential that in telling your child that you had used drugs it could 'normalise' use and "downplay" the negative consequences of using illicit substances. As is so often the case, you often have to ignore the headlines and go to the actual journal article to find out what the researchers actually said, because when you read it is very clear that there are many limitations to this study. The major one is that the parent-child communication was not observed, the findings are based on self-report data provided by the child and there was no information collected on the context of the conversation, i.e., what, when and how it was said. The paper also stated that some messages provided by parents "may be helpful and others may be harmful".

Firstly, 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. For those that may have experimented or used regularly for a period of time, however, this is a question that many dread their child asking. When it is asked, 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 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 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 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.

With that in mind, what should parents say when they are asked about their past drug use?

As already said, I believe that honesty is the best policy. If you did experiment with cannabis (and you actually inhaled) in your teen years or at uni, or maybe even tried something stronger and you're thinking that sharing your experiences will help drive home a 'don't do drugs' message, i.e., a "I'm your mate. I know where you are and I've been there myself" bonding-with-your-kid approach, that's not likely to be helpful. Neither is making a declaration one day that you popped an ecstasy pill in 1993. If you're asked a direct question by your child, however, 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 truthfully. If that's the case, doesn't your child deserve the same respect? Interestingly, the lead author of the research paper discussed above, A/Prof Jennifer Kam, was quoted as saying "Parents may not want to voluntarily share their past drug use with their early adolescent children, but we are not suggesting that they outright lie to their kids."

So if you have used illicit drugs what should you say? How should you handle that honesty? The most important thing to remember here is that you think carefully about what you want to say beforehand - use the conversation as a 'teachable moment' - what message do you want your teen to take away?

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 another time!). If you think about it, the reasons you give to your teen 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 responses could 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!"

Once you've told them why you stopped (and I would avoid going into further details about your drug use if at all possible - you can certainly end up down a rabbit hole if you don't know when to stop, so don't over-share!), you then need to make clear how you feel about them using drugs and why you have those views. Remember that the answer you give is just a part of an ongoing conversation that you will have with your child on this topic - answer the question and then move on.

If you don't want them to experiment, this is the time to reinforce that and outline your expectations, as well as your family rules, in the area. If you did experiment and you don't want them to do the same thing, that's perfectly ok. You're not being a hypocrite, you're now an adult with a child you want to protect. If they turn around to you and say "Well you did it, I'm going to as well ...", it is important that you tell them that as a parent you now see the world from a different perspective (if that is actually the case) and if you do discover they are breaking your rules, there will be consequences. Don't feel guilty about that - you want to keep your child safe.

Once you've told them why you stopped (and I would avoid going into further details about your drug use if at all possible - you can certainly end up down a rabbit hole if you don't know when to stop, so don't over-share!), you then need to make clear how you feel about them using drugs and why you have those views. Remember that the answer you give is just a part of an ongoing conversation that you will have with your child on this topic - answer the question and then move on. If you don't want them to experiment, this is the time to reinforce that and outline your expectations, as well as your family rules, in the area. If you did experiment and you don't want them to do the same thing, that's perfectly ok. You're not being a hypocrite, you're now an adult with a child you want to protect. If they turn around to you and say "Well you did it, I'm going to as well ...", it is important that you tell them that as a parent you now see the world from a different perspective (if that is actually the case) and if you do discover they are breaking your rules, there will be consequences.

For many of those people who did experiment with illicit substances during their youth the experience was overwhelmingly positive. That's the truth - I know we don't like admitting it but for many that is the case. If you did try drugs and had a horrible time, that's great - you can be totally honest with your child. But to turn around and say to your child I regret my drug use during my teens, when in fact you had a pretty good time, is not only dishonest but potentially dangerous. Most people stop taking drugs for a reason - using that as a basis for your answer to your child is likely to be the most effective response to this difficult question.

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?

Reference

Kam, J. & Middleton, A. (2013). The associations between parents' references to their own past substance use and youth's substance-use beliefs and behaviors: A Comparison of Latino and European American Youth. Human Communication Research, 39. 10.1111/hcre.12001.

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