In February of this year in North Carolina, a 16-year-old was three times the legal blood alcohol limit when the car he was driving crashed into a tree. His 17-year-old passenger, also legally drunk, died as a result of the crash. They had just left an underage drinking party and were driving 75 mph in a 30-mph zone. The driver survived, but has since been charged with felony death by motor vehicle and possession of marijuana.
This is just one example among thousands of the devastating effects of illegal alcohol and drug use among teens. Teen movies glamorize alcohol and drug use and peer pressure can be intense depending on a young person’s social circle, their ability to make thoughtful decisions for themselves, and the kind of communication they have with a parent or guardian.
As a licensed therapist of 13 years and the mother of two amazing young children, I know that underage drinking and drug use is a significant problem that I will have to address regularly. While my family is not at the point where we are talking about the use of drugs and alcohol, I am already preparing for those conversations — as well as the many difficult conversations we will have over their lives.
Why am I already preparing for such a “talk” while my children are still young? Because there is important groundwork to be laid right now. The two best tips I can give you about how to talk to your children about drugs and alcohol are:
- Establish an open relationship with your child long before you will have these important conversations.
- Remember that how you manage yourself during these conversations is key!
The ongoing relationship you have already established with your child will play a big role in tough conversations. Being open to discussions and making your child feel comfortable coming to you will help build the trust needed for effective conversations about these difficult or sensitive topics. An open parent-child relationship can help increase your child’s confidence in thinking through things and making the best decisions when confronted with pressures like drugs or alcohol.
Another aspect of facilitating communication is the importance of preparing yourself for tough conversations. Talking through the conversation with your spouse or another adult is a great idea. Or, “rehearse” the conversation in your mind, pray, or write it down to help you think through and practice what you want to ask and say. Preparation can help you remain calm and fully present and avoid coming across as interrogating or accusing your child. Children are amazing at detecting a parent’s anxiety level and will likely respond accordingly.
Here are a few more ideas for managing yourself in a positive way during tough conversations with your children:
- Stay calm – take some deep breaths
- Be aware of your body language and facial expressions
- Reassure yourself that you can handle the conversation
- Don’t overreact or catastrophize the situation
- Know that it is OK to not know how to answer all their questions. You can tell them that you need to think about it and you will talk later, but make sure you get back to them
If you have concerns or know that drug or alcohol abuse is taking place, be ready to ask specific questions like,”How did the situation come about?” rather than open-ended questions like, “Why did you do that?” It is also important to consider if there is something going on in your family life that might be triggering the behavior. If so, acknowledge this to yourself and your child and work on positive ways to manage the situation.
(Stacie Weires, Former Counseling Director for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Des Moines)