Risky business: Not talking to your child about drugs, alcohol, and sex
Dr. Olaf Jorgenson
Posted April 23, 2010
Your children are going to hear about drugs, alcohol and premarital sex – and likely be tempted to learn more – and you have a choice. You can leave this aspect of their education to their friends, to acquaintances at the mall or, to peers during sports practices or at after-school gatherings. Worse yet, you can let them learn by doing. Or, you can be the one to talk to your children about drugs, alcohol and sex.
Research on children who engage in risk behaviors points to the critical importance of parental communication as an effective deterrent. Studies repeatedly demonstrate that children who feel they can talk with their parents openly are less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol or to have premarital sex. This calls on parents to take the initiative and open the dialogue and, many therapists recommend, start doing so early in a child’s life.
Where youth substance abuse is concerned, research abounds on topics ranging from the impact of genetic predispositions to the powerful and probably surprising influence you have through your own behaviors (Do you smoke? drink? Do your actions contradict your statements about smoking and drinking?).
Many of us witnessed the demise of the popular Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program, in which charismatic police officers brought dazzling, engaging anti-drug presentations to school auditoriums across the nation. Long-term studies determined that while D.A.R.E. satisfied parents and school officials, it did little to actually change the behaviors of the students.
While several anti-drug programs under development offer promise, parents who abdicate to schools the responsibility to teach children about the dangers of drug and alcohol use are making a mistake. It’s true that most schools include instruction on the risks of substance abuse in their health or physical education classes, or with special programs or presentations from outside experts. But numerous longitudinal studies strongly suggest that the anti-substance abuse messages need to be reinforced regularly, consistently and across time.
The best way to do this is for parents to discover what students are learning in their school, and then talk with their own children about drug and alcohol abuse in a way that reinforces and extends the same messages.
In talking with young people about drugs and alcohol, first and foremost you need to be able to listen to their questions and concerns. Often their main source of information is their friends and while you’ll want to be sure to address their questions about substance abuse, you’ll likely have opportunities to explore “friendship” too. Be careful not to moralize or criticize your child’s friends, but help them choose their friends wisely. On average children begin experimenting with alcohol and drugs between the ages of 11 and 12, so planting seeds carefully and being engaged in your children’s lives earlier are crucial.
Studies indicate that children with low self-esteem are more susceptible to early experimentation with drugs and alcohol, particularly as a consequence of peer pressure. While there are limits to the benefits of promoting your child’s self-esteem, parents definitely need to watch for signs of low self-image, and reach out for help when you have concerns.
By all means, if you suspect that your child is engaging in substance abuse — some indicators are a sudden drop in school performance, withdrawn and sullen moodiness, glassy eyes, weight loss, and more — reach out for help immediately.
When it comes to sex education, many of these same insights apply. While it’s true that many schools offer some form of instruction, unless it supplements (and parallels) messages from home, it’s also likely to be of limited effectiveness. Supporters of abstinence-based programs broad-based human sexuality instruction are locked in ongoing statistical warfare about which approach works. But a comprehensive review of the research leads to the conclusion that unless parents are actively involved in the conversations, no school-based sex education program leads to consistent, significant and sustainably remarkable results.
Parents need to talk with children about sexuality, and they need to begin early in the child’s life. Very often, opportunities present themselves with young children, such as a pregnancy or birth. Parents are advised to follow the child’s curiosity, and answer with calm and candor, using clinical terms (penis, vagina) to demystify and de-stigmatize sexuality as much as possible.
Older children will want to know about dating, safe sex, birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. These can be trying conversations for some parents (especially since for many of us, our parents never sat us down to have this dialogue, so we lack any experience with it). It’s a good idea to prepare for these discussions by consulting a wide variety of sources, from friends and fellow parents, to your family doctor and clergy. There are alsomany books available on the subject.
In conversations about risk behaviors, above all remember that what you convey is less important than your tone in conveying it. You are not an expert on human reproduction or the psychology of underage drug use, but you are an expert about your child. Your goal is forging and reinforcing an open, trusting relationship that invites conversations later, particularly when temptations and questions leave your child with few options for advice and counsel.
Regardless of the content of your discussions about risk behaviors, it’s important to clearly state your values both regarding sex and substance abuse. While your children may or may not adopt your views, they need to know where you stand, and they need to be clear about the parameters of their behavior as they fit into the broader context of family life.
Clearly there’s a fine line to walk between professing and preaching, and only you can determine where the line is with your child. If you make it impossible for your child to fit your expectations, however, you’re making it substantially more difficult for her or him to reach out to you later during a difficult time.
If all of this seems daunting, there are professionally designed programs and consultants who help facilitate conversations between parents and children about risk behavior topics. I’ve included two local sources, but you’ll want to consult friends, family, fellow parents and the administrators at your school to obtain references and identify the right resource for you and your child.
When you do your research and get ready to talk about sex or drug and alcohol abuse with your child, you’ll be struck by the staggering range of advice (often conflicting) and expertise out there. Ultimately though, you will find strategies that work for you. There are few priorities that transcend this critical parenting responsibility, particularly for parents of children approaching the “tween” and teenage years, who will gradually relinquish their control over their children’s behavior to the powerful, potentially devastating combined influences of media and peer pressure.. The consequences of leaving sex and substance abuse education to school or the “experts” among your child’s friends can be life-changing, with dire and tragic consequences. Your child’s curiosity is normal, the temptations are everywhere, and the risks are very real. Don’t leave your child’s risk behavior preparations to chance.
For more information:
Children Now: http://www.childrennow.org/index.php/learn/talking_with_kids/
Heart to Heart: A Seminar on Growing Up for Parents and Kids. Presented by Lucille Packard’s Children’s Hospital, Stanford University, in Palo Alto and Campbell. See http://www.lpch.org/newsEvents/EventsLectures/YourfamilysHealth/heartToHeart.html
Parents: The Anti-Drug: http://www.theantidrug.com/
Saso Seminars – Parenting Skills, by Steve and Patt Saso. See www.sasoseminars.com/
Time to Talk: http://www.timetotalk.org/
Ole Jorgenson is head of school at Almaden Country School.
Published in Almaden Times Weekly April 23-29, 2010