How much influence do parents of teenagers have over the choices their kids make in risky situations? More than most parents think. In fact, data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reveals lower rates of current drug, tobacco, or alcohol use for those teens who have conversations about substance abuse with their parents than for those teens who do not talk about this with their parents. Given that reality, the next questions for parents are how to talk to our kids, and when to start. It turns out that it's never too early to talk to our kids about substance abuse, as long as our messages are clear, consistent, and emphasize the positive behavior we expect from our kids.
As soon as she saw the text message, Debbie breathed a sigh of relief, thankful she had talked to her 14 year old daughter about what to do if she found herself in an uncomfortable situation with friends.
Mom pls pick me up at corner of Main & South
Debbie knew something was up because it was a school half–day, and her daughter was hanging with the usual crowd at a friend's house. She didn’t expect to hear from Lisa for another two hours. Stranger still, the pick-up location was more than two streets away from where she should have been . She texted back: coming now
Then she got in the car, and picked her up.
"What’s going on?"
"Why did you want to come home so early?"
"It just wasn't fun anymore."
"Really? Who was there?"
"I don’t know, everyone. Can we just go home?"
At home, Debbie didn't mention it again, and started folding laundry. Her daughter, who NEVER folds laundry, picked up a dish towel, folded it in half, then said,
"It was kind of weird. Some of the kids got beer from the fridge in the cellar and were drinking it."
Debbie could feel her heart quicken, but somehow managed to stay calm.
"Wow, I'm sure you didn't expect that. What did you think?
" I don't know. It seemed really stupid. I mean, I knew I wasn't going to have any, but the other kids seemed really into it. I could have hung out, but it would have been really boring. So I made up some excuse – a dentist appointment - and I left. I don't know if that was the right thing to do."
"What do you mean? Why not?"
"Well I left Laura and Jenni ( two best friends) there. I probably should have stuck with them, or asked them if they wanted to go too, but I don't know, I just reacted, and left. I feel kinda bad."
At this point, Debbie didn't miss a beat. She went right for the bottom line.
"Lisa, I'm really proud of you. Drinking beer in 8th grade is really dangerous. Kids who do this are really hurting themselves. You made a really good choice deciding to leave, and I'm glad that you knew you could text me and I would come and get you. This won't be the last time you find yourself in this situation. You did the very best you could. Now that you know this could come up, let's think about how you want to handle it next time, so you take good care of yourself, and still feel like you’re a good friend. You did a great job today.”
Learning that our middle schooler has been exposed to high risk behavior, such as teen drinking is extremely anxiety provoking for both parents and their young teens. Debbie did a great job: first- by making her position on underage drinking absolutely clear, second- preparing her daughter with a plan for when she encountered this kind of situation, and then praising her sufficiently when she executed the plan.
Some parents worry that raising topics like drinking, drugs and sex will somehow put these ideas into their child’s head. The reality is that teens are confronted with high risk situations at increasingly early ages, and talking to their parents helps kids to envision what to do when the situation arises. In our Empowerment Fitness® classes for teens and workshops for parents, we emphasize that we move toward what we think about. Of course it is important for parents to tell their kids the reasons why they believe it is bad for teenagers to use alcohol, drugs, and tobacco*,but this is not enough. Equally important is to talk to our kids about what we want them to do in these situations - how to take care of themselves in situations where their friends are using these substances and it is offered to them. We need to talk to our kids about making good decisions and good self-care.
* For more information go the US Health and Human Services website