5 tough questions about teens, alcohol, and drugs - answered

To talk or not to talk? Is offering a safe ride home always a good idea? Should you come clean about your own drug history? Get answers to tough parenting dilemmas concerning alcohol and drugs.

By Jessica Kelmon

Talking about intoxicants with your child is tough. There are facts you must communicate: damage to developing brains; harm to emotional, physical, and mental health; impaired judgment that can wreak havoc on a young life and turn driving deadly. But other questions arise, too, about what you choose to say — and how and when to say it. We turned to the experts for answers to five vexing questions parents are likely to face.

The power of suggestion

Say your son is 11 or 12 and seems unaware of alcohol and drugs. Should you preserve his innocence, or broach the subject now? Parents often fear that by bringing it up, they'll get their children thinking about issues they’d otherwise be oblivious to. “Often we’re afraid of the power of suggestion, and I don’t think that’s part of the problem,” says John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. “I think not talking about it is part of the problem.” Duffy advocates an open, honest approach, using media moments to spark organic discussions. The “right age” to start these talks depends on your child’s maturity. “But if your child’s a teenager and you haven’t had this talk, you should,” he says.

M.A.D.D.’s (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) advice to parents is to discuss these issues early and often. “One in five teens binge drink, yet only one in 100 parents think it’s happening,” says Jan Withers, M.A.D.D.’s national president. “I think it’s the parents who are blissfully unaware.” There’s also evidence that the power of suggestion can work in your favor: A 2008 study by researchers at Iowa State University found that when mothers believed their children would not use alcohol and conveyed that belief to their children, their adolescent children were less likely to drink.

Should you offer a safe ride home — no matter what?

Parents often worry that by offering to pick their children up from a party or a night out, they're giving tacit permission for the child to engage in risky behavior. Duffy says pick them up regardless: “It’s a safety issue. Just do it, and talk about it tomorrow,” he says. Duffy cautions that a “no questions asked” policy is only for that night: Just as it's pointless to talk seriously with a drunk adult, it doesn't work with a drunk or stoned teenager, either. “But,” Duffy says, “Leave room for consequences.” The next day, sit down with your teen and talk about what happened, and impose reasonable, previously discussed consequences.

"Of course we’d want to be available to give them a ride home under any circumstances,” Withers says. "It’s vitally important for their safety." Parents can offer to pick children up without sending mixed messages, she says, by discussing the dangers of alcohol and "in the very same breath, telling them — under any circumstances at all — 'you're the most important thing to me, I love you unconditionally — and I will come get you anytime '"

Should you share your own history?

Limited research seems to show that honesty about parents' drug and alcohol histories — with perspective — is the way to go. The Anti-Drug advocates for parental honesty, as long as parents present their former drug use as a mistake. According to the New York Times, “… there’s evidence to suggest that when parents provide more information and better modeling early on, their children’s risk of substance abuse goes down. And a 2009 study by the Hazelden addiction treatment center in Minnesota found evidence that many teenagers believed that parental honesty about alcohol use was a positive influence.”

Still, teen psychologist John Duffy has mixed feelings: “That’s a tough one. I go back and forth,” he says. “Honestly, there’s a bit of power of suggestion here. For [younger] kids, they may see passive permission in hearing that you smoked, did drugs, or drank alcohol.” But for older teens, he thinks it can be helpful. “At 11, [it’s] not a good idea to share history. At 18 or 19, it might be very helpful.”

Should kids learn about drinking at home?

“Yes,” says Jim Matthews, M. Ed., and author of Parent’s Guide to College Drinking. He advocates giving teens a primer on drinking responsibly — teaching them the differences between beer, wine, and hard alcohol, explaining how different types of alcoholic drinks affect people in different quantities, what "proof" means, and how .05 feels (as opposed to .1). You can (and should) include health and safety messages in this discussion. “Young people need information about this choice, and it’s information they’re not getting,” he says.

What’s the best way to get this information across? In addition to facts and frequent, frank discussion, some families report doing an alcohol taste test with their kids. Matthews allowed his own kids to have one drink at home when they turned 16. They both declined. “About 30 states allow parents to give their underage kids drinks in the home,” Matthews says, “and some states allow parents to buy [their] underage kids a drink in a restaurant.” In these instances, the recommendations are for very small quantities once or twice, not regularly letting your teen drink at home, which is harmful to the brain and dangerously habit-forming.

How can I tell if my kid is smoking pot?

If you’ve never smoked marijuana, it may be hard to tell if your kid is using it. Marijuana has a “skunky” odor. Burning a dried Maple leaf or lawn clippings can produce a similar scent. Teens may try to disguise the smell by burning candles or incense, wearing perfume or cologne, or spraying air freshener. Smoking marijuana isn't the only way to get high, of course. With the proliferation of cannabis clubs, food items containing marijuana — from brownies to popsicles — are easier to get. Regardless of how it’s ingested, telltale signs of marijuana use include red, swollen, glazed over eyes, dry mouth, and excessive hunger, known as “the munchies.” Be on the lookout for sunglasses (particularly if worn at inappropriate times), eye drops, and binge eating – especially at odd hours.

But don't jump to conclusions. Any of these “sudden” new habits — personal hygiene changes, style experiments, and even weird eating habits — could be typical behavioral changes rather than drug use. Check out Is My Kid Smoking Pot for more details on this troubling question.

is an associate editor at GreatSchools.org.