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HomeHealth & Behavior

What about you, Mommy?

When your kids ask about your own drug and alcohol history, what should you tell them?

By GreatSchools Staff

“Did you ever try drugs, Mommy?”

I paused as my 11-year-old daughter’s eyes flashed panic.

How I got myself into the conversation was one of those meandering paths through the forest of torturous parental explanations. It all seemed so logical, so well-intentioned… And now stupid, stupid Mommy, what had I done?

My daughter is horrified by all notions of intoxication. If I drink an occasional glass of wine at dinner she regards me askance and asks if I’m drunk. If she hears about a kid at a given high school smoking marijuana, she declares she’s never ever going to that school. If we got to a restaurant where there are adults enjoying pints of beer with their meal, she steers me to the door, “Mommy, ew! It’s a bar.”

In her mind, drinking more than a small glass of wine or beer (her parents’ typically abstemious ration) will lead immediately to projectile vomiting — followed by alcoholism, car wrecks and jail-time in quick succession. A puff of cigarette smoke? You’re on an express train to the nearest cancer ward. Illicit drugs? She embraces the “Reefer madness” world view: one encounter will make you a lifelong addict, living on the streets and stealing from family members.

Of course, she didn’t develop these notions in a vacuum. Being older parents hell bent on stayin’ alive for our kids, my husband and I are avidly engaged (some might say preoccupied) with health. So my kids have probably heard more about the dangers of partially hydrogenated oils, artificial coloring, cigarette smoke, drug abuse, reckless driving, and playing around the open dishwasher with its exposed knives, than many of their peers.

Thus, when my daughter overheard that a friend’s Dad had done a lot of drugs, she demanded an explanation. “Is Melanie's Dad an addict? Did he go to jail?”

Melanie’s father had what might be charitably called a colorful past. Still, I didn’t want him forever branded in my daughter’s mind as a junkie, so I felt the need to give her a little more context. “Actually honey, a lot of adults have tried drugs,” I said.

“Like that guy on the street, right?”

“Well, not just him… other adults too. A lot of them.”

And suddenly there we were, with her asking me point blank about something I wasn’t sure she really wanted to know.

This was uncharted territory. My little girl suddenly peeking into the quandaries of her teen years. Me not knowing what to say — or how honest to be.

Growing up California in the 1970’s, aka experiments-R-US, I’d been a goody two-shoes. Neither drink nor drugs touched my lips. I didn't smoke pot, tobacco, or cloves from the spice cabinet. In college I broke down: I got slammed on my 21st birthday and experimented a couple of times, far less than anyone else I know.

So I told her the truth. Had I had a colorful past I might have behaved differently, but I believe in holding myself to high standards of honesty, based on the idea that if you are committed to being forthright, you will do far fewer things you regret.

Even though I consider my history moderate by the standards of the time and place, this was clearly not the answer my daughter wanted. From her wildly dilated pupils I saw that I’d shattered the comfort of her black-and-white world view.

“You didn’t get addicted, Mom? You didn’t go to jail?”

“No.”

“What about Daddy?”

Realizing the can of emotional worms I’d opened in her budding garden of a mind, I punted. “You’ll have to ask him,” I said.

When my husband walked into the room a few moments later, over hearing our conversation, he sputtered: “She asked me that already.”

He sat down with her and explained that he too had experimented in college, how stupid it was in retrospect and how little they knew then about the brain and the effect that drugs can have on a developing mind. But the look on her face made us wonder if she now regarded her parents as dangerously depraved, even though at this point my husband and I are about as square as they come. In fact, we were pretty square when square was a word that referred to more than a geometric shape.

“Let’s put it this way,” my husband said. “The last two Presidents have done more drugs than your mother and me.”

The irony struck me — we want to raise our kids with certain absolutes. When I talked to friends about it, none of them had figured out what to do when it came to sharing the details of their own pasts. One couple I know can’t agree: one wants to be quasi-honest, the other wants to fabricate a big fat white lie. Another single Mom, whose ex had a serious drug problem, committed to lying a long time ago, framing her ex’s issues in terms of alcoholism instead of drug abuse.

I turned to the experts to find out what parents should tell their kids about drugs and alcohol. There’s plenty of advice out there, but when it comes to talking about one’s own history, things get complicated: each history and child is different. Suddenly, a choice between forging an honest relationship and protecting your child against the power of suggestion stand in stark opposition.

According to Antidrug.com, research suggests that honest conversation, even about a parent's less-than-squeaky past, has a positive effect on kids' choices, although there are limits to how much detail you should offer. This website is great — it even gives you talking points!

When it comes to what to tell your kids about using drugs and alcohol themselves, most neurologists advocate a  zero-tolerance position, stressing how dangerous and debilitating drugs and alcohol are for all developing minds (up to the age of 25!). And I’m right there with them, nodding my head.

At the same time, psychologists who work with teens in the trenches contend that your child will likely do all the things you're afraid of, and extreme prohibitions will only guarantee rebellion.  I think, "Not my daughters! They will use their brains and make good decisions!" No parent wants their child to do drugs or drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes — no matter their own past, sometimes precisely because of their own past. But the realities of the adult world, even for those we uphold as worthy of our greatest admiration, are far murkier. I decided I’d made a mistake by spilling the beans on myself without thinking through the implications, and I vowed to revisit the issue soon with a stronger, clearer message.

In the middle of the night, my daughter climbed into bed with us. “I can’t sleep,” she said. She didn’t have to explain why.

I remember being her age and the dawn of new and terrible awakenings glimmering in my consciousness in the middle of the night, when the only solution was to climb into bed with my mother. I wrapped my arms around her, silently promising that whatever else happened, I would be there for her, and that I would always be willing to talk about tough things, even when I didn’t have all the answers and the experts didn’t either.

“I couldn’t sleep either, honey,” I whispered. “Do you want to talk?”

“Naw,” she said. “I love you, Mommy.” And she dropped off to sleep.

 

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

02/28/2012:
"I think you should be honest with your children about your past. I mean all the details don't have to be thrown out there but I do not believe you should lie to them about your past. They can learn from your mistakes if you just take tha time to sit down and have an honest conversation with them. Explain it wasnt the smartest thing you have done, but its a part of your life that you can't take back or hide from. Make sure they know you love them and are proud of them for being brave enough to ask such a difficult question. They were brave enough to ask ... I think parents should be brave enough to be honest about their past. I think it will make their child respect them even more. "
07/25/2011:
"Wonderful article! I identified w/this so much (especially being an older mom w/an 11-year-old). He hasn't asked those questions yet but at some point he will. Like the author, I was very good throughout high school, but did test the waters on this kind of thing in college. I came back to the goody-two-shoes way of life but worry about how I will answer if my kids ask "Did you ever...?" "
07/25/2011:
"ok, good article, but I still don't know where is the limit in telling our children about our past. My daughter is 7 and already asked me have I tried cigarets and I was half honest: I said I did, didn't like it, didn't continue with it (this part was half honest as i did smoke for a few years) and finally i mentioned all good reasons why she should stay away from it. the drug subject didn't come up yet so anyone who did the 'talk' please share some strategies "
07/25/2011:
"This is a subject that is definitely based on your personal situation and your child. My son is extremely sensitive and while I have no problem letting him know I have "Mommy Drinks" when I am with friends and family I don't want to bombard my 8 year old with all the things I have or have not done in my past. When he is older and when it is appropriate we will discuss what he should look out for and what it can do to him. I don't think there is a cookie cut way to deal with this. My son's father is not around and not around for good reasons. Those reasons should keep him far away from drugs and alcohol. Teaching kids that moderation is the key in all things is life is important. Even better get them involved in sports and other activities that prohibits the use of drugs and alcohol. "
07/25/2011:
"Great article and very timely for me and my teenager! I appreciate the honesty of the author so much! It's easy to pretend our children will grow up in a bubble that we create for them. From the time of conception onward, all we want to do is shield them from danger, which is only right. But I'm oddly reminded of a line from the movie "Finding Nemo" where Dory, the blue tangfish says, "Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo." In other words, we've got to allow their lives to unfold. All we can do is parent to the best of our ability, be honest and open and hope that they know that no matter what happens, they have US to rely on. I've talked honestly and openly to my teen about my past drug and alcohol use. I've explained all the dangers. More than once. But in the end, we all have to accept that our reach only extends so far. At some point, they will be away from us and will be faced with a choice. Pray they make a good one. And if not, pray for the strength to handle whatever comes. "
07/18/2011:
"Being a child of the 60's I indulged after college and in the last 40 years I have probably imbibed less than most in 3-6 months. I have a margarita each year for my birthday which makes my grandkids laugh. They know about my drinks but not my joints and am not sure how we will deal with it but we will and it will be ok. "
07/18/2011:
"THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!! I am so relieved to know there are other parents out there that have this same dilemma! Unlike the mom in the article my past is extremely 'colorful'. While I am still no closer to knowing how to handle this issue, I feel so much better just knowing im not the only one! Thanx again "
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