How to Talk to Your Child About Substance Abuse When You’re In Recovery

Posted on August 24th, 2015
Posted in Recovery

Getting a handle on your feelings and experiences regarding drug and alcohol abuse is tough enough, but talking to your children about substance abuse when you’re in recovery can seem impossible. It’s not.

Helpful advice from highly respected sources such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and drugabuse.gov are good places to start. But you need more than generalized advice. You want to customize it to meet your children’s specific needs. Here are some tips.

Keep It Casual, but Have a Plan

Kids of all ages, especially teens, can spot “the talk” coming from parents a mile away. Their radar picks it up and the shield comes down, letting little of what you’re about to say get through. You can avoid this tendency with your children by making the conversations about drugs and alcohol casual, but still preparing yourself in advance and having a plan. Knowing what points you want to communicate is foremost, but you also need to know when to back off and allow the discussion to sink in.

This conversation isn’t always easy, especially when you’re also trying to find your way in sobriety. Any added tension and stress might send your triggers and urges into overdrive. That’s the worry, right? Keep a cool head, remain calm, show love in your demeanor, and mean what you say. Above all, refrain from lecturing. Just as they can spot the talk from a distance, kids can also instantaneously detect when a parent’s tone goes from friendly to formal.

Listen — and Make Sure Your Message is Worth Hearing

When you chat with your children about alcohol and drugs, it’s important to listen more than you talk. This isn’t to say that your words are unimportant — they most definitely are. But experts on talking with kids about substance abuse almost universally recommend listening skills as necessary to a successful outcome.

You want your children to absorb what you’ve said. For this to occur, in addition to your demeanor and ability to listen well, you need to make your words worthwhile. Don’t waste them. You’ll learn to develop this skill, and you’ll become better at it over time. Don’t worry that you might not be the most polished orator. Being too slick is actually a turn-off to kids, as well as tactics such as lecturing, reprimanding, threatening, cajoling or pleading.

Educate Yourself First

When you decide that you need to talk with your child about drugs and alcohol, you might think that as someone in recovery, you know pretty much all there is to know about the topic. But do yourself a favor and educate yourself before you begin the conversation.

It’s good that you know that flakka is gaining popularity in certain parts of the country, but it’s probably better to stick to the basics. Pertinent topics include the value of not experimenting or falling in with peer influence, as well as the understanding that all drugs can be dangerous.

Use Age-Appropriate Language

If you’re trying to have a conversation with a very young child, what you say will be markedly different than the words you’d use in a discussion with an adolescent or young teen. That’s why it’s so important to tailor your words and points while taking the age of your child into consideration.

Instead of using words that fly over their heads, use simple, easy-to-understand words that they can relate to. The older your children are, the greater the likelihood they already have some comprehension of the subject, so the language you use can reflect that.

And don’t be quick to use the latest buzz words for street drugs. Kids might not react the way that you think. This might be due to peer influence, personal experience, and preconceived notions about parents trying to be friends to their kids or being out of the loop.

Consider Talking About Your Experiences

Whether you decide to divulge to your kids any details about your experience with alcohol and drugs is a highly personal choice. You have insights about substance abuse that might help you in better understanding the allure and the dangers of drug and alcohol use. But you also might find yourself describing your experiences in a way that makes such use appear attractive and enjoyable to your children — which is most assuredly not your intent.

It might be helpful to use your experiences to highlight the value of learning from your mistakes — so your kids don’t repeat them. Suppose, for example, you were a daily marijuana user from your early teens and continued to smoke pot right until you entered drug rehabilitation for alcohol abuse and a dependence on prescription painkillers. Your kids know about your drug use. They’ve seen it.

Talking with them about the mistakes you’ve made under the influence, how you know now that your addiction took precious time away from them, and caused you to act in a manner that you’ve tried hard to change might be effective in deterring them from initial or continued experimentation. Discussing the consequences of individual actions — driving while intoxicated, yelling and abusive language in the home after using alcohol or drugs, getting arrested, being estranged from your children — are strong lessons learned.

Make and Enforce Clear Rules

You want desperately to protect your children from any dangers posed by alcohol and drug use. But you might not be able to shield them from everything. Still, annual surveys by the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study show that children whose parents talk with them about alcohol and drugs are less likely to use them than the children of parents who neglect this all-important conversation. These findings prove that what you do and say matters a lot to your children.

These conversations about drugs and alcohol shouldn’t be a one-and-done talk. Keep the conversations ongoing, and allow your children to ask questions.

But as equally important as the education is the setting of family rules around drinking and drug use. Use clear, emphatic language to show that drinking and drug use is off-limits and that there’ll be consequences for failure to abide by the rules. Draw up the family rules and the levels of punishment for violations. You’ll need to go through this process well in advance of having the conversation with your children. Recognize that punishments should be different, depending on the severity of the violation, number of times the family rules were violated and other factors.

Model and Encourage Positive Behaviors

NIDA-supported research by the University of Oregon’s Child and Family Center points to the importance of parents’ roles in helping keep their children from using drugs and alcohol. Modeling positive behavior as parents and encouraging your children follow your lead by praising positive behavior will go a long way toward keeping your offspring from veering into drug and alcohol use.

As someone in recovery yourself, make sure that you take good care of yourself physically and emotionally. Stress the importance of healthy eating, and share enjoyable recreational and entertainment experiences with the family. Talk calmly about emotional issues and relationship problems your kids might have, and be nonjudgmental when they open up with you about their troubles. You want an honest and open two-way conversation — never a one-sided one.

Bottom line: When you’re in recovery, it can be challenging to find the right way to talk with your child about alcohol and drugs, but you have a unique perspective and lots of motivation to get this right. Use what you’ve learned to help you in this all-important parent-child interaction.

By Suzanne Kane

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