Health Blog

Your Relationship with Your Kid Can Be a Life-Saver

The Washington Post recently published a feature story by a 26-year-old man named Ben Yeager. In his first-person account, Yeager describes in agonizing detail how alcohol addiction derailed his promising young college career and nearly got him stabbed when he blacked out and broke into a home while intoxicated late one night. As a college student, his unchecked access to parties and alcohol led to countless blackouts, injuries, and legal problems. He eventually committed to and sustained recovery, and in 2014 graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism after several years of sobriety.

Yeager’s story turned out well, but he is very fortunate to be alive. Like most parents, my heart skips a beat when I hear these sorts of chilling accounts, as I ask myself, “How can I possibly ready my kids for the perils of a world filled with substance use?

As an addictions counselor, I commonly hear statements from adult clients such as, “I wish somebody would’ve taught me about drugs.” While this reaction is completely understandable, I firmly believe that parents don’t fail to teach their kids about substance use out of laziness or malice, but rather out of fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of being exposed as hypocritical. Well, I’m here to tell parents that we don’t have to have all the answers, and we don’t have to be perfect to talk to our kids about drugs. Here are three tips to make the daunting task a little more approachable:

1. Keep communication lines open

We often hear about having the talk with our kids. The talk about drugs. The talk about sex. The talk about . . . fill-in-the-blank. I contend, however, that it’s not about the talk, but rather about an ongoing series of talks, an open dialogue. We don’t have to teach them everything at once, and we don’t need to be infallible to help them. Many parents avoid talking about drugs because they feel their kids will try to stump them, and they’ll end up looking foolish when they don’t have the answers. But teaching your kids that nobody knows it all, and that we don’t need to carry around the burden of pretending to be perfect, can be a liberating experience for everyone involved. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “Let me look into that”, or better yet, “Why don’t we look into that together?” When they don’t fear being lectured or “proven wrong”, our kids are much more likely to open up.

2. Facts are your friend

Some parents try to teach their kids through scare tactics. While this approach may work temporarily, you’ll lose credibility when your daughter finds out her life didn’t fall apart the first time she took a swig of alcohol. It’s more effective, and less manipulative, to equip ourselves with the facts. After all, there is an endless array of data regarding the harmful effects of substance use, particularly on young people. The NIDA for Teens website is just one excellent resource:

3. Believe in your young person

As Steven Vannoy explains in his classic parenting book The 10 Greatest Gifts I Give My Children, it’s irrational to expect our kids to make responsible choices if we’re constantly telling them what to do. This sends them the message that they’re not capable of making decisions on their own and is a recipe for low self-esteem.  To quote Vannoy from the book, “kids with low self-esteem look to anyone else to decide what’s right for them.”

Fortunately, Vannoy (and I) believe the reverse to be true as well: “Kids with high self-esteem know how to say ‘No’ to dangerous situations” (p. 139; 1994 & 2014).

Perhaps most encouraging of all, we play a big role in how much our kids believe in themselves. So why not feed them positive, empowering messages? It may just save their life.

Aaron George, LMSW, CAADC
Outpatient Therapist
Leonard Street Counseling Center