HomeHealth & Behavior

House rules on drugs and alcohol

When do parents start talking about it, and what are their rules? Are drunk pickups, no questions asked, a good idea? See how these parents handle tough scenarios.

By Jessica Kelmon

Barbara, a San Francisco mother of two, first started talking about drugs with her son early. When her son was in sixth grade, a recovering addict had visited the boy’s classroom and made a big impression.

“My son came home, wide-eyed, telling these stories about how even marijuana is bad — retelling the man’s story about a friend smoking a joint and shooting himself in the head,” she says. “The messages were very black and white.”

Her fear? Letting her son believe the ‘alcohol and drugs are all bad’ message would lead to a loss of parental trust when he saw academically successful kids drinking and smoking marijuana at parties in high school. Over the years, Barbara (whose name has been changed at her request) spoke openly with her son about drugs but it wasn’t until she was dropping him off at a party in his junior year, that she realized he needed more than one of those “someday in the future” discussions. When asked if kids were doing drugs and alcohol at a previous party, her son surprised her by admitting they were.

“I had less than five minutes in the car with him alone, and I wanted to get a couple of messages across,” she recalls. She told him how to drink if he was going to drink, how to be safe, not get sick, and to never get in a person’s car if they’d been drinking. She told him: “With beer or wine, when you feel a little tipsy or out of control, you can stop and that feeling will go away. But if it’s hard alcohol, by the time you feel any effects, it’s too late, and it can be very dangerous.” If anyone passed out she urged him to call for help.

“I told him that if he called us, he wouldn’t get in trouble. We’d rather he call and be safe than otherwise.” On smoking marijuana, she informed him that “There’s no known lethal dose of marijuana,” she says. “I didn’t want to say, ‘I prefer you smoke than drink,’ but I did say there’s no way to kill yourself smoking weed, but there is a way drinking alcohol.”

Experts all agree that talking about drugs and alcohol use with kids is an essential preventative medicine in warding off your child’s forays into risky substance abuse. And part of that talk must include the scary facts: Certain activities can lead to death. Others can lead to prison. And maybe least understood: Alcohol and drugs both do damage to developing brains (which continues up to age 25!), and increase mental health risks such as depression and schizophrenia. But when push comes to shove, aside from laying out the rules and the risks, how do you do it, and what do you say? It’s far easier to prescribe “best practices” for such conversations (and for dealing with the aftermath) than to deal with the three-dimensional reality: Answering your child’s difficult questions and setting down rules in the real world. Barbara’s forget-about-perfection, safety-first message may sound like a tacit acceptance of dangerous and illegal behavior, but experts suggest that keeping lines of communication open is often the difference between risky behavior (smoking pot) and life-threatening behavior (getting in a car with a drunk driver).

“Often we’re afraid of the power of suggestion,” says John Duffy, a Chicago-area psychologist who works with teenagers and their parents, and the author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. He observes that parents fear that even talking about alcohol and drug use will start your otherwise innocent child thinking the behavior is normal. Duffy doesn’t buy it: “I don’t think that’s part of the problem, I think not talking about it is part of the problem,” he says.

Modeling behavior

Not every parent chooses Barbara’s approach. Iowa-based mother-of-three Norma D. says she and her husband took a different approach to the questions of alcohol and drugs. The family knew two people whose lives had been destroyed by drug addiction and alcoholism. Norma’s children had witnessed the job losses, health issues, financial trouble, and losses of dignity that go along with addiction. “I think it said to our kids: This is real.”

“We try to focus on the positive rather than focus on the negative,” she explains, adding that they left explicit discussions of drugs and alcohol mostly to the school. Instead they emphasized their children’s power as decision makers. “Around middle school we [told the kids] that they have choices,” she said. “And the effects of their choices would hurt them far more than they would hurt us. It would hurt others, but it would hurt their bodies, be their loss. [We wanted] to give them that sense of responsibility.”

They also attempted to offer role models for clean fun. “They can see our example,” she says. “We can have normal family fun without drugs and alcohol. My husband is a blue collar worker and frankly, we don’t have the money to spend on it — and we have a lot of fun without it.” Between keeping the kids busy with arts, music, part-time jobs, and faith-based church groups, her children “see that there are better — positive — things to do.”

Keeping 'em busy

“Abstinence just means that it’s going to happen later, not under your umbrella. I’d rather be there to navigate the consequences,” says San Francisco father of two Josh H., who shares Barbara’s safety-first stance on drinking and drugs. He laid down some rules for his teenage son — especially when it comes to smoking pot – including guidelines about how much it’s okay to have (only one joint) and that it’s not acceptable in their house.

Over the years, he’s come to apply certain rules to himself as well. One is to always pick his kids up from parties. “If you make the effort to pick them up,” he says, “they will have to be a lot more sober, and you have time to talk to them in the car.” Another is using a “safe phrase” which his kids can use over the phone to convey that they want an immediate, SOS pick up.

Josh’s most effective tactic echoes Norma’s strategy: Keeping his kids — especially his son — busy, busy, busy. “Overschedule the hell out of them,” he recommends, adding that his son divides his time between AP classes, community service, being a wilderness first responder, Outward Bound, and had a year-long internship at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

An academic’s input

There’s no perfect cocktail for insulating kids from risky behavior, but some experts suggest parents need to do a better job of making sure kids understand what’s involved, including everything from the merits of moderation (with alcohol) to life-and-death risks. Jim Matthews, M. Ed., author of Parent’s Guide to College Drinking, and father of two recalls treating a female college student sent to the hospital for alcohol poisoning.

“I asked how much she drank and she said seven shots (all vodka)— all 110 pounds of her,” he says. “It was her first year in college. I asked what proof vodka and got a blank look,” he recalls. “I explained amounts, ounces. She said they were using those “red cups.” I said, ‘You don’t know what you drank, nor how much you drank.’”

Just another coed who’s never been schooled in the toxins of intoxication? Not exactly. The young woman had been the president of the M.A.D.D. group at her high school. She might have learned never to drink and drive. But the problem, Matthews stresses, was that the student didn’t know how to drink. Research shows a majority of high school students don’t know you can die of alcohol poisoning. So where do young folks learn how to drink? From other teens, who don’t have accurate information either, he says.

Matthews advocates for honest conversations at home — and often. He says we need to teach kids about safe amounts. “The mistake many [kids] make is if we drink to a .05, it feels pretty good. … But if .05 feels good, [we assume] .1 must be twice as good, and .2 must be ecstatic. But it’s a matter of staying down at that .05 level,” he says, and never getting drunk.

Matthews also advocates frank discussions about a family history of alcoholism, having let his own his kids know they’re at risk. “I’m real about it,” he says. “I want them to understand that there’s a place for alcohol in society. We don’t say here’s your license, go drive. We teach them.” That’s what we should do with alcohol, too, he says.

All of these parents are cautiously optimistic that their approaches worked. For Barbara, the proof was senior year when her son — now in college — called her for help when a friend was vomiting from drinking. Norma and Josh still have teens at home, but they both say their kids are thriving. Despite their hugely different approaches, these parents share a core commonality. All have attempted to do what psychologist Duffy says really matters: They make sure their kids know their parents are truly available when things get tough.

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Comments from readers

"MY kids all know what each drug will do to you. Which ones will kill you and which ones won't. They understand what a dose of each is and how it relates to your body weight. I do not shelter them from seeing the effects of drug abuse and my high school son read the heroine diaries to get a realistic look at what drugs can do to you. He is now reading a book called scar tissue and my junior high son will read these books also. They are realistic and show how a person can heal. They know they can tell me anything. I will always be straight with them. This is what keeps our lines of communication open and may save their lives one day. "
"I have a 19 year old son, sophomore in college. He is a great kid and growing up we had all of the drug/alcohol talks. He knows we have a history of both drug and alcohol abuse and has seen the negative impact it can have on life. He also had a very good friend die in a car accident in 11th grade due to driving under the influence. Because I have friends with older kids in college and have heard their horror stories of kids finally getting their freedom and going wild at college... We allowed our son to drink with us in Europe and the Bahamas his senior year in high school, as he was 18 and it is legal in both places. My son has admitted to me that he does drink and occasionally partakes in smoking pot with friends at college. The drinking did not surprise me - the pot however really shocked me. He assures me that he follows my advice about never being under the influence and driving. He and his friends always make sure they are settled for the evening before doing e! ither. He also does not go crazy with either. Apparently pot is huge in college and if you think your kids won't try it or alcohol in college you are being delusional. I live in Georgia, one of the "Bible belt"� states and kids here are saying yes ma'am and yes sir when their parents tell them NOT to drink or do drugs, but it is still happening when they go out the door with their friends. I think the article is not giving permission as much as it is trying to wake parents up to the fact that it is happening all over, not just California. My son has friends from all walks of life now and he agrees that the kids who have gotten in the most trouble are the ones that cannot go to their parents and be honest. This especially applies to parents who preach the "no tolerance"� mantra. Wake up and deal with reality for your kids' sake. Just because you talk about drugs/alcohol and tell your kids facts that can keep them safe, does not mean that they will partake ! in either activity, but DOES give them your mature insight and! knowledge, instead of their friends. "
"I consistently teach my child about good nutrition and good investments. Drugs and alcohol have no nutritional value and no resale value, therefore (in addition to lots of other reasons other commenters have already mentioned), they should be avoided. Consider how much a casual drinker spends on alcohol between late high-school to age 25. Is there something else they would rather have bought with that amount of money? "
"As the parent of a daughter who just turned 18 I was happy to read this article. I took the approach that "Barbara" took. My daughter communicates with me about much of what goes on at the parties she attends. She has always been diligent about not drinking and driving, not doing any drug and driving and not getting into a car with anyone who has. She has no problem asking someone else for a ride. Although she just turned eighteen, she graduated high school at 16 and has already finished a year in college. She has worked a steady job since she was 15, paid for her own car, insurance, gas, etc. and has done volunteer work. I am not saying she is perfect, but I do believe that given the right guidance, teenagers can make good choices. By not "laying down the law" they are not eager to go out and be rebellious. She was taught how to have fun but also be a productive, responsible citizen. "
"As parent of 15 year old, I explain literal risks; e.g. pot is illegal in our state - you get caught smoking, then you have a drug record; forget working in healthcare (as I do and she wants to do), we don't hire people with drug records. If you're at a party and police get called, everyone gets arrested - an accquaintance puts a joint in your pocket, the police may not buy your defense that you've never seen it before. Consequences, consequences, consequences - kids just don't see them and you have to spell them out. Smoking one joint at a party is NOT low risk and can mean losing a college scholarship. "
""only one joint" is ok with the parents? The world is truly going to Hades in a handbasket. Next time interview parents from OUTSIDE San Francisco. Even Los Angeles feels conservative compared to some of the stuff that people seem to think is ok up there. "
"Re the comment: but I did say there’s no way to kill yourself smoking weed, but there is a way drinking alcohol.� Instead, I would have said "Anyone driving a car when under the influence of drugs that alters your physical and/or mental abilities is dangerous and can be fatal to you or others." "
"We have teens, one about ready to leave for college and one nearing the end of high school. Here is what we did, although it is too early to tell if it is/was successful or not as long-term life lessons. Sex and having babies was discussed early and often, anytime they brought it up. The kids were in early elementary when they were watching me get dressed for work and asked about my BC pills. "What do these do?" "They keep me from having another baby." "Oh." "What's that tube?" "Mascara. It goes on my eyelashes like this." There is a lot of laughter in our family and we tease about every topic imaginable. Example: "It's time for you to sleep NOW (on 5th time I was called into their room after tucking them in at bed-time)." "Why?" "Because your Dad and I are going to have sex." "Ewww, gross!" They giggled hysterically and buried heads under pillows. We have been making risque remarks (between parents) in front of the kids from time to time for years, just never in! front of their friends -- so any embarrassment stays at home. Even now, a dinner time conversation can include innuendos and both kids just roll their eyes and say "Not at the dinner table, please!" We have joked about sex enough that we don't even have to say the innuendo, we just look at each other and burst into laughter. When the oldest was 2 months away from college, they asked about trying alcohol at home. Both parents are non-drinkers, but Dad had previous experience in college. We had a family taste-test. He got several airline size bottles (1 tiny bottle split between 4 people) from a liquor store and we tried hard lemonade, Jack Daniels and Coke, vodka and Coke, red and white wine. Everyone tried everything. It was pretty hilarious and no one wanted to continue drinking anything because the taste was awful, but we all go used to recognizing the burning tongue you get if there is alcohol in a mixed drink. Drugs: My husband had experience pre-college. He sai! d plainly, "I've done it, I've sneaked it behind my parents ba! cks, I know where you will hide it, I know how you will behave, I know how you will find money for it, and I know what you will be feeling like." The story that moved them most was probably his co-worker who had been a brilliant math student and was offered top jobs everywhere after college but took a year off to be a resort bum, working odd jobs and enjoying himself. His enjoyment turned into an addiction and the drugs numbed his brilliant mind so that after 3-4 years of the resort work, that was all he was fit for. No permanent home, no insurance, part time and temporary jobs the rest of his life. The most important thing is to model the behavior you want your kids to mimic. "
"This lack of tight boundaries is ridiculous, and it's insane to tell your child that smoking pot is not lethal. Of course the parent must not be thinking about driving under the influence. Giving your child instructions on how to be involved in illegal activity is giving permission, and they'll see nothing wrong with it. As parents, yes, we do have to set boundaries and with drinking and drugs, it's sad to see that these boundaries are so vague. My parents had a zero-tolerance and I have to say, it did affect my behavior. I wasn't perfect, but I wanted to make them and God proud and I could see the losers who still did drugs & drank heavily at age 40-50. Interestingly enough, those people were allowed by their parents to do these things as kids and they were life-long users. Boundaries are essential in setting up right and wrong for our children. "