“Teach your children well,” a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young classic encourages. Children are impressionable, like sponges that soak up whatever liquid they are immersed in.
Some parents say they’d rather have their teens drink at home than elsewhere, where they’re in danger of driving impaired. Many parents minimize or dismiss the dangers, rationalizing that because they survived their youth, particularly if they grew up in the more freewheeling 1960s and ’70s, their children will survive as well. But this attitude has the opposite effect of the intended one.
“Parental attitudes favoring alcohol and other drug use tend to be linked with a greater likelihood of substance use by adolescents,” said a study published in May 2011 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
A baby boomer kid, I did grow up in the ’60s and ’70s when it was not uncommon for children to have easier access to substances. Although my parents were “lightweights” when it came to alcohol consumption, I knew where the unlocked liquor cabinet was. It was there for parties since it was an expected aspect of hospitality to make “adult beverages” available. The joke in our family was that if there was a six pack of beer left over on July 4th, it would still be there the next year. Wine (Manichewitz) was a standard on the Seder table at Passover, although the thrill of being allowed to sip it, was more than doused by the fact that it reminded me of cough syrup. Another memory is of attending Bar and Bat Mitzvah receptions at which bartenders (who would lose their licenses now if they did this) would serve us watered down whiskey sours under the watchful eyes of parents. I did learn to drink responsibly, although, admittedly, like many college students, I drank more than was healthy. These days, I consciously choose to refrain, since many in my life are in recovery and frankly, I have no desire for intoxicants.
Conversations about drug and alcohol use between parent and child are highly influential, despite the erroneous assumption that teens aren’t listening to their parents. “Parents need to initiate age-appropriate conversations about these issues with their children at all stages of their development in order to help ensure that their children make the right decisions,” said Pamela S. Hyde of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in a 2013 news release.
When you are ready to initiate dialogue about drug and alcohol use, teachable moments abound. For example, if there’s a news report on television about a performer’s death because of drug or alcohol use, if there’s a video going around on social media about a designer drug that your child might be tempted to try, believing it’s cool to do so, if they hear their friends talking about a peer who uses, those would be ideal circumstances to leap on board.
It’s never too early to begin the conversation, but it might eventually be too late. Even preschool children are astute enough to understand more than a parent might imagine. Share your thoughts about what substances do to the body and mind. If there’s a family history of addiction, let your child know the impact of hereditary susceptibility. Talk about the reasons people use, such as peer influence, boredom, habit, societal norms, self-medication, easy accessibility, the coolness factor or the seemingly low-cost for some drugs. Let them know the dangers of driving while impaired that could result in a DUI, injury, death, destruction of property, jail, loss of job, financial cost and damage to reputation.
Between college and grad school, I worked for the South Jersey Council on Alcoholism and my role was to educate teachers so that they could pass information on to their students. It was part of the S.O.B.E.R campaign (Slow On The Bottle Enjoy the Road). I would like to think that it made a difference in the lives of these young ones.
Opening the door by asking the thoughts of their children is an easier way into an often-challenging topic for parents to broach. When my son was 11-year-old, I asked him what he’d say if offered drugs or alcohol. He replied, “I ain’t doing it. That ain’t cool.” Grammar aside, I was gratified by his response. Even as an adult, he’s refrained from drugs and drinks responsibly.
He was aware of the impact of smoking on those in his life. Both paternal grandparents died of smoking-related illness, so he chose not to smoke cigarettes. My mother died of congestive heart failure and although she never smoked, she grew up in a home where my grandfather and uncle did, so he understood the dangers of second-hand smoke. He did, however, have a “come-clean conversation” at age 16 in which he called me and told me that while visiting a friend, they’d smoked a cigar. I asked what he thought of it. His said, “I hated it.” I told him, “Good, don’t do it again.” He never did.
An environment of trust is essential. If children know they can openly speak with their parents about their curiosity and even experimentation, they’re less likely to hide their use. If parental response is calm, rather than angrily and punitively reactive, the child is more likely to curtail use and enter treatment if the need arises.
Many parents engage in addictive behaviors while expecting their children to abstain. Clearly, parental influence extends to their example. Children watch their parents for cues to determine behavior. Ask yourself whether you’re putting your desires before the wellbeing of your child or children by continuing to use. It doesn’t matter if the use isn’t in their presence. Children sense when something is amiss.
Clients in treatment have shared stories of parents who would party with them, wanting to play the role of cool friend rather than authority figure. Initially, they’ve relished that form of relationship, but later they recognized its detrimental impact on their lives. The good news is that, at times, parents and their children have engaged in treatment simultaneously, even going to 12-step meetings together.
An obvious downside to parental smoking, in addition to exposing children to the multiple toxins cigarettes contain, is that their children are more likely to pick up the habit as well. And the longer children are around a parent who smokes, the stronger the likelihood they’ll smoke — and smoke heavily — according to a May 2014 study from Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Though trying to protect your children from substance abuse might seem like a herculean task, remember they’re watching and listening. And as Crosby, Stills and Nash remind us, “Know they love you.”