Parenting 101: Telling Your Kids About Your Drug History

By Victoria Kim 08/29/19

The Fix spoke to parents about how they handled talking to their kids about their histories with drugs and alcohol.

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parents talking to children about their drug history
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As a parent, how would you approach talking about drugs and alcohol with your teenager? How would you navigate being honest with them about it without promoting drug use?

Recently on Slate’s Care and Feeding parental advice column, a reader submitted this very question to columnist Nicole Cliffe.

“Should we tell our son about our own past and not-so-past drug use? Particularly drug use as teens? Though it’s been years, we’ve both done it all and did quite a lot as teens.”

Cliffe responded simply, “I think you can and should find a happy balance that works for you.”

It’s good to be honest with your child, but there’s a right and a wrong way to do it. Keep it simple, Cliffe says, and make sure they know they can be honest with you too.

We asked a couple of parents their thoughts on the matter. (They have asked to remain anonymous.)

What Parents Say

Julie, a mother from Bath, Maine, agrees that honesty is the best policy in raising her nine year old daughter. “I would tell her everything. Obviously when the time is right,” she said. Julie tried cocaine while working as a bartender in New York City and started smoking marijuana in college. “It really helps me with my anxiety and depression.”

“As far as telling my child about my drug use, I feel I have an open enough relationship with her to discuss almost anything,” said William, a father to a seven-year-old in New York City. He gave up marijuana when his daughter was born. Before that, he’d tried acid and cocaine when he was younger.

Both Julie and William say they will be open to having “the conversation” when the time is right. “I experimented and I would hope if she does, she would tell me,” said Julie. “Transparency and communication is very important especially during the teenage years.”

“I’d feel quite open to telling her honestly about my own experiences with drug use and experimentation, but in no way would I glamorize it,” said William. "I think speaking objectively and leaving out my personal likes or dislikes about drugs would be the best way to approach things."

History of Substance Use Disorder

Allison, a mom to a 13-year-old in Los Angeles, has "tried everything." But having a history of dependence on alcohol and opioids like heroin and oxycodone ("my most serious and long-lasting addiction") allowed Allison to approach the subject with her son from a place of experience. 

"In my case, I learned I was using drugs to self-medicate underlying depression and trauma so when I started discussing addiction with my son, it was in that context," she told The Fix. "We probably started talking about it when he was younger, maybe 9 or 10, but in terms that he could understand and contextualize."

Allison discussed substance use disorder with her son in the context of mental health, and made sure that from a young age, he understood not to judge people who use drugs. "He also understands the dangers of alcoholism because my father died from liver disease related to alcoholism before he was born and I never hid that," she said. 

By keeping the conversation open, her son probably has a better understanding than most kids about drugs, substance use disorder, and the role that mental health plays in all of that. Her son is "different" from her 13-year-old self, who had already smoked pot, cigarettes, and was ready to try alcohol by that age.

But if, or when, that changes, Allison says, "I feel like he has the knowledge and tools to deal with it when it comes up, and hopefully he will feel like he can talk to me about it."

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr

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