How do I talk to my teen about drugs, alcohol, and sex?

VIDEO | CAUTION: Please be advised that the video below, which has the best example of what the concept of ‘consent’ really means, includes strong language. 

Dear Liz,
My son has started dating a girl who I’ve heard from other parents is bad news. She was suspended from school for smoking pot in the parking lot and I’ve heard that she has been caught drinking. I don’t know how to talk to my son about this without out pushing him away, but I am really worried about him getting involved in drugs and alcohol at such a young age. What should I do?
– Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

From one mother to another, big huge hugs, this sounds like a tricky and emotionally intense situation. I have to admit that I have no idea what the answer to this question is, but as the mom of two little boys, this sort of thing weighs heavy on my mind and heart most especially because we seem to be in the era of addiction crisis in our state. No parent wants to see their child hurt and so naturally, any preventative measures to keep our kids safe are a good idea.

To answer this, I am turning to my friend, fellow blogger Jim LaPierre who runs the BDN blog called Recovery Rocks. Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist, and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life.

Here is what Jim had to say:

I’m not sure how old your son is, but from your description I imagine him to be early high school age. I’m not sure how much you’ve shared regarding concerns for him experimenting with drugs and alcohol, but from the tone of your letter, I’d guess you haven’t discussed it in depth.

Now you have a potential Romeo & Juliet situation. This girl is “bad news” (all the more appealing to your boy) and you fear she’ll corrupt your (I assume) innocent boy. Trying to keep them apart is likely to draw him to her like a magnet. I tease my wife that this is exactly what she did to me, though in truth, despite her being older and more experienced, I had already used alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, caffeine pills, and hash extensively before we began dating at the start of my 12th-grade year.

Quick question: Just as you’ve come to be concerned about your boy experimenting with drugs and alcohol, are you also concerned about the possibility of pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted diseases? Have you discussed with him what consent is and how to attain it?

I often encourage parents to discuss all of these topics with kids – primarily to see what the parents can learn. I don’t mean that in a tongue in cheek way. It’s simply my experience that kids have both a lot more information and misinformation regarding what is happening in their schools and among their peers than parents do.

By the way, the means by which parents judge does not seem to have matured appreciably since The Breakfast Club. Judging the girl by her reputation is problematic at best and a great way to get your teenage boy not to be open to what you’re concerns are.

I encourage families to start having age appropriate conversations with their kids by the start of 5th grade. My experience is that by age 11, kids have already been flooded with imagery and ideas by media and older kids. I’ve worked with children as young as 8 who had abused substances.

Discuss facts and practical risks. Make an agreement that while you do not condone the use of drugs/alcohol that you want them to come to you immediately if they have used them or if they are around people who are using them. Countless tragedies have been avoided by parents who give the clear message, “Call me, no matter what time it is and I will come get you without a lecture. I want you home safe and I will do whatever I need to do to ensure that.”

Talk about your personal experience. Talk about your family history (your kids should be told if they’re at greater risk for addiction due to their genetics). Talk to them about what you’ve seen among friends and family who use drugs. Please do NOT make this something that is designed to scare them (they’re largely desensitized and immune). Share concerns, share facts, and share your hopes for how you will relate to each other as they continue to grow.

If you don’t consider yourself knowledgeable, read up on the topic. SAMSA (Substance Abuse & Mental Health Administration) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse are good resources that provide guidance to parents. Locally, I encourage folks to access the Bangor Area Recovery Network for support and information on substance use disorders and for those who have loved ones struggling in active addiction, I encourage you to attend Addiction in the Family, a grass roots effort for community members the first Wednesday of every month.

Good luck!

~ Liz

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