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Substance Abuse and Parenting with A History

There are many tough topics you will have to tackle with your kids, but some topics, like substance abuse, can be particularly tough for some parents, given their own track records. This week we're talking about how to handle when you have "a history."

I think there comes a moment (or several) in every parent’s life when you come face to face with hypocrisy—your own.

Whether you eat the healthy foods you tell your kids to eat, or hold your kids to a high expectation of achievement in school when you yourself weren’t the model of studiousness, as a parent you have to figure out how your own history of behavior figures into your parenting.

Substance abuse is one of the topics that can be especially intimidating for parents to address, especially if they have their own history of use.

How much do you reveal, and how honest are you with your kids about what you did when you were their age? What about your current behavior?

Substance abuse continues to be high among teens, and according to a new study released this week measuring teen and parental attitudes about substance abuse, ground is being lost in the fight to reverse the trend.

One of the key findings of the current study is that “marijuana use is becoming a more acceptable behavior among teens and heavy marijuana use (20 or more times in one month) is now at disturbingly high levels.” (You can read the full report here.)

They also found that parents are increasingly not safeguarding medicines at home, or are themselves abusing medications.

Dwindling education and early intervention resources, and the increasing availability of poorly secured substances in the home, but especially the normalization of marijuana use should be “a wake-up call to everyone in a position to prevent unhealthy behavior,” said Dennis White, President and CEO of MetLife Foundation, which co-sponsored the study.

That means us, parents.

Despite any discomfort you may have, or behaviors in your closet you would rather not be known by your kids, avoiding these conversations is just simply not a good decision as a parent, experts agree.

Local family therapist and Patch Parent Council contributor, Tina DeMattia counsels that it doesn’t matter what you did as a youth; what matters is what example you set now.

If your past has led to current behaviors with drugs and alcohol that you aren’t comfortable with, then “there is work to be done,” says DeMattia. But this doesn’t mean you should not “illuminate dangerous behaviors and possible consequences” now. In fact, you have a duty to do so as a parent, she says. 

Parents need to take responsibility, counsels DeMattia, and give their kids the tools to make important decisions. Parents should serve as “the first line of defense with all things that could potentially harm our children such as alcohol, drugs, sex, suicide/depression, etc.,” she says.

DeMattia offers parents some strategies they can use to prevent their kids from developing unhealthy habits:

1. Talk to your child often, and listen to them. Be consistent and firm with your beliefs, and concrete about your expectations and consequences.

2. Connect and be present with your child on a regular basis. (Put down your phones!) Get to know your child’s friends and their families.

3. Remind your child that they always have a choice. Tell them you believe in them, and communicate that you know that they can make good decisions for themselves.

4. Be approachable and open for discussion. Know your child, and trust them until there is a reason not to. If you suspect they are engaging in self-destructive behaviors, do not wait to get help and support for them.

5. Be a good role model now

“Some parents believe at some level that if they talk about some taboo topic it will make it happen,” says DeMattia. “Or if they say ‘no’ to something, their kids will "hate them" or think they are ‘not cool.”

That’s the job, she says.

That means facing down those feelings of hypocrisy and keeping focused on what your job is today, and what you want for your kids. Regardless of your past behavior, you have a responsibility to take your own lessons learned and help your kids to know and do better.

“Being a parent sucks sometimes," says DeMattia. "If you are doing your job right, your kids will ‘hate you’ sometimes, and rarely will you be ‘cool.’“

To find more information and resources about preventing substance abuse, visit:

The Partnership at Drugfree.org

The National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse

Parent Tools at the Treatment Research Institute

stuart fellows May 04, 2012 at 06:22 PM
Unfortunately, there was no mention about mental health and drug use. Parents should also be aware of their kids' mental health. Drug use and mental health are tied together in many cases. When mental issues become too much and person finds comfort -- albeit incorrect and temporary -- with drugs, then the main root causes of drug abuse and experimentation are not addressed. Yes, issues with peer pressure must also be addressed to deter experimentation. As a society we have unfortunately moved mental health treatment over to law enforcement and other punitive processes, which is in fact a travesty and does not help society in the long run.
Kirsten Branch May 04, 2012 at 07:09 PM
You are correct, Stuart, this particular study was measuring attitudinal fluctuations, and wasn't delving into other contributing factors, such as mental illness. Do you think there could be an argument to be made in this regard, given the attitudinal focus of this study, to say that perhaps attitudes about how we address mental illness (i.e."pop a pill") could be a factor, especially as children watch what their parents do? Thanks for adding your perspective!

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