Earlier this week I posted the most recent conversation I had with my 6-year-old, 9-year-old, and 10-year-old about illegal drugs. James and I have talked to them about the harmful effects of illegal drugs, and a little about alcohol abuse, before. But since Katie Allison Granju’s son died of an overdose and drug-related assault this week, I can’t stop thinking about how devastating drug abuse can be.
If you’ve never had a conversation like this with your kids, you may be wondering how to get started. Here are some ideas:
1. Don’t be afraid to show emotion: I broached the topic this week by telling my kids, “I feel really sad because my friend’s son died.” I remember my father saying to me, “I feel really sorry that I didn’t pay more attention when your brothers started abusing drugs.” Even little kids can relate to emotions and if you tell them how you’re feeling, you’ll engage their curiosity. They’ll also start to associate drug use with sadness or regret, instead of with being cool.
2. Be honest: Kids are like editors, they can see right through a façade. Don’t lie to them about your own drug use if they ask you (and you can be sure they’ll ask you, eventually.)
3. Include your opinions and judgments: Simply admitting to having tried drugs isn’t enough. If you don’t want your kids to experiment with drugs, you need to say more than just, “I did LSD and shrooms but not when I was your age.” It will work better to say, “I dropped acid once with some friends and it was a really scary awful experience because … ” or “I did cocaine and I thought I could do it once but it ruined my life. It’s all I could think about, it’s all I wanted to do, and I became addicted.” Or, “I wish I hadn’t tried crack because it hurt my brain…”
4. Don’t be preachy: You’re not preaching a sermon to your children, you’re having a conversation. They want to know about your experiences and your opinions but they don’t want you to lord over them. “If you ever try drugs, you’ll go straight to hell,” isn’t going to deter your children. A holier-than-thou approach might even make them mad and be counterproductive in the long run.
5. Remind them, and then remind them again, that if anything is bothering them at any time of day or night, they can always talk to you about it: Kids turn to drugs when they’re in pain. We can’t mitigate that pain most of the time but we can let our kids know, again and again, that we are always there for them, even if it’s 2:00 in the morning on a school night. Have you told your kids recently that they can tell you anything at any time and you promise not to get mad, especially if it’s something they’re worried about telling you? Stop reading this post and go tell them again.
6. Talk about peer pressure: Kids who are not inclined to try drugs may also have trouble saying no to their friends. Who doesn’t want to be cool and fit in?
7. Role play: You can do this with stuffed animals when kids are little and later just by having each child (and you) be a character, as if you’re doing a play. Though you may not be talking to a 3- or 4-year-old about drug use, you can use role play at this age to help them say no to grown-ups or peers who are trying to trick them. Make the role playing fun and funny and your kids will ask to do it again and again.
8. Ask other adults to talk to your kids too: Though my oldest daughter often doesn’t want to listen to me, she is eager to listen to her teachers and other adults. Sometimes kids feel more comfortable talking to friends’ parents, teachers, older cousins, grandparents, or family friends. Ask other adults who are close to your children to share their thoughts about drugs.
9. Have more than one conversation: One “talk” with your kids is not enough. You’ll want to talk to them in different ways at different ages. When something comes up in the news or with friends about drugs, use that as a stepping stone to have another conversation.