I’ve talked quite a bit about how important I think it is for parents to talk openly with their kids about hard topics. A few months ago I had a chance to chat with a doctor and adolescent specialist from CHOC Children’s to hear an expert opinion on how to talk with our kids about sex and sexuality. You can read that here. This month, I’m chatting with another CHOC doctor about talking to kids about addiction. Dr. Mery Taylor is a pediatric psychologist and is a great source of wisdom for having conversations around avoiding addiction.
Dr. Taylor’s first word of advice is that these conversations should be ongoing, and tailored to the developmental level of the child. For younger kids, the conversation might focus around explaining that some things are for adults and some things are for kids. “Setting boundaries about drinking alcohol is important. Kids need to know: this is for adults. This is a mommy drink, or a daddy drink. This is not for kids,” she says. Dr. Taylor also encourages us to look for opportunities to talk to younger kids, and to ask what they already know about these topics. She shares a story from her own life, with her 9-year-old daughter.“My daughter was just kidding around and pretending a candy that she got was a cigarette. We don’t smoke in our house. I don’t know if she knows anybody who smokes, but she’s certainly getting it from somewhere and she knew, even though we haven’t necessarily had that conversation. She’s nine years old, but she knew that that was wrong and that I wouldn’t like it. But it was an opportunity to say, “Why do mommy and daddy not want you to smoke?” I think it’s always good for children to ask them questions, so “Why do you think it’s bad? How do you know it’s bad?” so you can get a sense of where they’re coming from because they’re going to get information from a lot of different sources.”
Dr. Taylor suggests that for younger kids we might talk about the things that aren’t allowed for kids, covering the basic rules. They don’t necessarily need to know all the medical consequences or the potential for addiction at this age, while this will be important later. This is why it needs to be an ongoing conversation.
As kids get older, that conversation needs to broaden to include decision-making. We can explain the legalities to our kids, and that drinking before age 21 is illegal, but they also receive a little more information at this age as to WHY they shouldn’t drink. Again, this conversation can start with simply asking our kids what they already know. “With teenagers, you can be more direct and more explicit about what’s going on. Maybe a particular person in the family does have a drinking problem or a drug problem and you can have more of a frank conversation about that with your child because their cognitive abilities at that point allow them to understand and process that information,” Dr. Taylor says.
She also cautions that teenagers don’t want to be lectured at, so it’s on us to find the right moment. Sometimes that moment is when they have something to gain from listening. For example, if they want to go to a party, they’ve got to have a conversation with us first. Dr. Taylor advises, “I think the message that you want to convey probably is more about values than about rules. We can remind them that when they are out there in society, they are still a member of our family, and to think about how they are going to represent that. And that might feel a little bit more genuine to them than, “You shouldn’t do this because it’s against the rules.”
It’s also prudent to talk about the potential risks and negative outcomes of drinking, like getting into a car with someone not fit to drive, or being taken advantage of. She encourages us to come up with potential scenarios and work through them with our kids, so that they’ve thought about how they will respond in advance of a crisis. Another tip: always emphasize that you will come and get them if they find themselves intoxicated and in a bad situation.
Kids also need to know that there will be consequences for breaches of trust. If they miss curfew, if they come home drunk, if you find drug paraphernalia . . . all of these behaviors will lead to a reduction in privileges and more supervision and monitoring. Help kids understand the connection between trust and freedoms.
Dr. Taylor also shared some warning signs that parents should be looking for if they are concerned about the potential for addiction. “A change in peer groups, hanging out with different kids, getting notices that they’re skipping classes or not going to school at all, declining grades, increased arguing. And it may be even just more sneaky behavior. They’re trying to conceal things. They’re a little bit more isolated and defensive. These are all warning signs,” she says.
Dr. Taylor’s main takeaway: try to make this conversation natural, organic, age-appropriate, and ongoing. “Look out for opportunities to make a little life lesson. It doesn’t have to be something where you sit down for an hour and lecture your child. But, as little things come up, take an opportunity to just plant seeds of behaviors and values that you want your child to grow up with. ”