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Should You Tell Your Child about Your Past Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse

Everybody has something in their past that they would rather not discuss. What happens when your kids ask you about it directly?

That is the conundrum that many parents find themselves dealing with when their son or daughter asks them whether they drank alcohol or used drugs when they were younger. Should the parents come clean in the hopes of convincing their kids to stay clean? Or should they keep their skeletons in their closet so as not to adversely impact their child?

No Clear Answer From Research

Unfortunately, the research that has been conducted on this topic has yielded somewhat contradictory results. In 2009, the Hazelden foundation conducted a nationwide study which found that the majority of teens who learned of their parents’ drug use said the knowledge would make them less likely to use drugs.

On the other hand, a study published in the journal Human Communication Research in February 2013 revealed that seventh- and eighth-graders who received a strong anti-drug message from their parents but were not told about their parents’ past experiences with drugs had a higher probability of developing anti-drug attitudes on their own.

It Depends On the Child

One expert has taken a more nuanced approach to this question. Dr. Joseph Lee is the author of Recovering My Kid: Parenting Young Adults in Treatment and Beyond and has worked with thousands of families to help them deal with substance abuse issues. Lee insists that parents should focus less on wrestling with the idea of sharing their past drug use and much more on forming a strong relationship with the child. When this relationship is solid, Lee says, the parent has a much better idea about how to approach this issue.

Other Mitigating Factors

After all, not only is each kid different, but their backgrounds and experiences are different as well. So a parent should consider any substance abuse-related issues before talking about his or her past drug use. Some factors which could increase the odds of a kid struggling with alcohol or drugs include:

  • A family history of substance abuse
  • A family history of mental illness
  • A chaotic environment at home
  • Academic failure or low academic motivation
  • A peer group who experiments with drugs or alcohol

Do Not Stay Silent

The wrong approach to take is to assume that parental input regarding drug and alcohol use does not matter. Some parents may think that their son or daughter never listens to them, and therefore it is pointless to dispense advice about substance abuse. On the contrary, the Hazelden study showed that most teens first look to their parents as the primary source of guidance on drugs and alcohol. In other words, kids are less likely to turn to drugs if their parents tell them they should not.

Substance abuse

A Few Guidelines For Discussing Your Past Drug Use

For parents who still have no idea how to respond to a direct question about their previous alcohol or drug use, here are some suggestions:

  1. Try to consider how your child will react to your response, including whether he or she is impressionable, interprets things narrowly, or has trouble foreseeing the consequences of his or her actions.
  2. Do not volunteer unnecessary details about your drug or alcohol abuse.
  3. Do not romanticize or laugh about your alcohol or drug usage (even if you do think it was fun and/or you never got caught).
  4. Highlight any problems that may have occurred because of your drug use (such as money troubles, family tension, academic failure, etc.).
  5. Describe why you do not abuse drugs now and point out some of the differences between your childhood and the present day (such as stricter penalties for minors caught using drugs, more potent strains of marijuana or formulations of illicit drugs, etc.).
  6. Reiterate that you do not want your children to drink alcohol or use drugs, and (if appropriate) tell them that you want them to avoid the mistakes you made.

Most importantly, let your kids know that you love them no matter what and that they can come to you with any problems with which they may be struggling, whether they are drug-related or not. Should there ever come a time when someone you love is addicted to drugs or alcohol, convince him or her to seek help immediately.

If your son or daughter requires substance abuse treatment, contact Next Generation Village to learn about our teen drug treatment options.

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