What, and When, to tell Kids about our Pasts

ducklingA reader wrote that her ten-year-old has already asked if she’d ever done drugs; she said that she’d managed to “dodge the bullet,” but didn’t want to lie either, wanting him to be mature enough to hear that particular part of her life story.  She asks, “What do do?”

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This made me think of a morning five years ago when my kids were eight and ten.  While we didn’t get into my own past in that particular conversation on the way up to school, we ended up talking all about drugs and alcohol and why they could be dangerous.  My older son wanted to know which drugs were the worst and most addictive, and we worked our way up to the scary idea that some people inject drugs into their bodies with needles and that these drugs could be very addictive.  When asked what that drug was called, I found myself using the word “heroin” with my little elementary schoolers and wondering if I’d just gone too far and given too much information for their question, when my younger son said, “Heroin is the most addictive?  I thought it was Miller Light.”

So, what do they really want, and need, to know?  What to do…

Firstly, as far as our pasts go, if we are going to be really honest, we must look at how often the illicit things we did in our pasts were really about trying to assert our independence, and quest after some sort of transcendent or fleeting happiness (and that what we often really felt, underneath our bravado and insouciance, was anxiously or resentfully dependent on our families, for better or worse, and unhappy with our lives back then).  If our parents had truly gotten us, we must ask ourselves now, would we have been more like those “good kids,” the ones who we want our kids to be like?  Or maybe you were that “good kid,” but then you get to look your kid right in the eye and say you never did drugs—hopefully because you were fortunate enough to feel good about yourself and feel guided toward healthy choices. 

And for the rest of us, if our kid asks us if we ever jumped off a bridge, we might admit that we did—and then explain why it really wasn’t the best idea.

One way to engage this issue is to find out what our kids are truly asking.  We might do this by asking them, “What made you wonder about that?”  Is he or she learning, hearing about or witnessing behaviors (in life or on their various screens) that has raised the question? 

A good approach (be it sex or drugs), is to cultivate open discussion and questions so that we can more fully educate our children about the pros and cons of any potential decision.  Mood altering drugs can certainly convey a good mood for a short time, but every drug has its rebound effect that takes one further in the other direction as it leaves the body (i.e. withdrawal from alcohol, a depressant, creates agitation).  Then there are the issues of addiction (especially if there is a family history), harm to the body (i.e. there was a time when smoking cigarettes was widely seen as safe) and impairment in social functioning (where kids use drugs and alcohol to “fit in,” and end up more isolated and ashamed than before they tried it).  The case against drugs can be made easily enough, and it will be more effective in answer to their actual questions.

On the other hand a child may be trying to tell us that other kids are doing things and our kids needs tools and support to say no.  Role playing can teach them possible words to use and still be “cool” while saying no.  Still, with an older kid, they may be giving us the clue that they want us to not let them go to this or that party.  Being able to say, “I wanted to go but my mom and dad won’t let me,” is a face-saving option. 

With ten-year-olds, however, we are typically still just setting an educational foundation from which they will make later decisions (about which we may not be consulted at that time).  So if we avoid judgment and trust that kids who have good self-esteem and are well informed are less likely to choose self-destructive behaviors, we serve our kids by focusing on their questions/concerns more than on our own past behavior (for better or worse).  It is also very possible to say something to the effect (regarding sex or drugs) that some things are private and we will think about if and when it might be appropriate to share these things.  

Boundaries are important and as parents, we must be confident in our instincts about what is right for our particular child, family  and selves.  The overall message of Privilege of Parenting is to really listen to your deeper Self, and your child, and work to find the love and patience to consistently follow your own wisdom.  And remember, you don’t always have to have a ready answer—saying, “That’s an interesting question, let’s talk about that later when it’s a better time to talk,” (so long as you follow up and have the talk) is an authentic way to buy time to think things through. 

Our own behavior in the present moment, however, can be a powerful way to teach moderation and responsibility (or the opposite…).  Many kids I have worked with got into problems with substances in misguided attempts to manage their anxiety or depression, often choosing the wrong coping strategy (i.e. marijuana is a depressant and so long-term use leads to chronic depression) for real pain.  A better “drug” may be trusting relationship with us where they can express the pain, sadness or loneliness that might be putting them at risk.  Truly listening to our children is precisely how we can support them to “just saying no-thank-you”  (one can certainly be polite about not using drugs and alcohol).

Another possibility is to help our children recognize that childhood and adolescence are huge times of brain development and that using substances may impede their growth.  Suggesting that these are grown-up choices and that they are best served to steer clear until they are older and can then decide for themselves, using a more grown-up mind, what is best for them.  Until then, it’s our job to keep them safe and the safe choice is to wait.

We also want to be talking about these issues before our kids confront them, so ten is perfect, if they bring it up.  Waiting until all the kids are doing things (i.e. sex, drinking) is a much more loaded (pun intended) time to talk about it.  Worse yet, is the situation where we tell them, “Alcohol is okay, but not pot,” and so they must smoke marijuana if they are to be worth their salt in rebellion.  If pot is okay, then they are onto something stronger, and soon they’re swigging Miller Light… Thus it serves our children to set the limits with a margin for rebellion factored in.

Emphasize safety above all else.  If you are  not a great limit-setter, you might recommend that they not drink AT ALL, or have unprotected sex EVER during childhood… so that if they must rebel, they won’t have to run too far out in traffic.  And emphasize that no matter what, never get in a car with anyone who has been drinking or using drugs—that they can call any time of day or night rather than risk personal harm—and if they call you on it, do not punish them, but help them think about what sort of choices they want to make in the future. 

Perhaps we’ll discuss what to do when our kids already have a drug or alcohol problem in a future blog, but stay open to the possibility that questions about issues may come from behavior that they are already experimenting with.  No matter how much we shelter them through high school, if they haven’t learned to be true to themselves and think through decisions, they may end up at risk of spending much of college drunk or stoned once they have their chance to go wild.

These can be thorny issues, but if our kids know that they are loved, are well-informed and feel good about themselves, it seems more likely that they will be empowered to make good decisions.  The listening, even more than the talking, helps children feel that they are worth treating really well (which generally means not doing the things we parents would worry that they would do).

Namaste, Bruce

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One Response to “What, and When, to tell Kids about our Pasts”

  1. Laurie Says:

    Wow, so much to discuss. So much to mature into for me.

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