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Talking to Your Kids About Drugs

How to tell your children to do as you say — not as you did.

Jana photographed at her home

"If there's a genetic factor, I want them to know they could be at higher risk," says Jana M. 53,, a former addict and mother of two young boys. — Photo by David Eustace

Rock concerts and the smell of reefer wafting through the crowd — they went together like protest marches and peace signs. That pairing is an undeniable symbol of the '60s and '70s, a time when boomers experimented with and indulged in drugs, from pot to acid and beyond. Equally undeniable: That history puts boomer parents in an awkward position when it comes to discussing drug use with their kids today.

Most parents don't want their children to dabble in drugs. So which is the wiser choice: to be honest with your kids about your own drug use in the past? Or to keep quiet and hope your offspring will do as you now say, not as you once did?

Teenagers want to hear about parents' experiences with drugs. In a survey of 15- to 18-year-olds conducted by the nonprofit treatment center Hazelden, 60 percent of kids said they want their parents to be honest with them. Regardless of whether parents used drugs a little, a lot, or not at all when they were younger, "parents can be tremendous role models when it comes to making decisions around drugs," says Hazelden's chief medical officer, Marvin Seppala, M.D. He says it's vital for recovering addicts to explain their disease to their kids: Children with addicted parents are at high risk themselves.

The doctor should know. He promotes dialogue between young and old as part of Hazelden's Four Generations campaign and has wrestled with the dilemma personally. "I saw the worst of addiction and the best of recovery," he says. "I dropped out of high school at 17 from addiction to anything and everything you could obtain in small-town Minnesota in the early '70s."

Luckily he landed in a good rehab facility, though it took him two years to get sober. At 20, Seppala found his way to college, then went on to medical school. Three close friends were less fortunate: They died of overdoses shortly after Seppala went straight.

Stories like Seppala's, minus the lurid details of actual drug use, can be powerful cautionary tales. "Kids need to know the consequences," he says.

Seppala started telling his story to his two children, now grown, when they were 7 or 8 years old. "That's a little young for most children," he says. "But in general it helped, because kids are exposed at very young ages. We wait too long to have these discussions. By the time they're 12 or 13, they will have been exposed to pot and alcohol at school."

Jana M., 53, is passionate about sharing her history — albeit edited — with her two boys, ages 7 and 9. A lifelong addict who used whatever she could get her hands on ("My drug of choice was 'more,' " she wryly notes), Jana finally got clean while pregnant with her second son. "At this point my children know that drugs are bad and that I'm one of those people who got into trouble with drugs," she says. "It's difficult to know how much to divulge and how much is age appropriate. But if there's a genetic factor, I want them to know they could be at higher risk."

But what about the average, non-addicted boomer? Do you really need to tell your kids about that joint you shared at a frat party? Well, yes, Seppala says — but think hard about how to frame your story: "For someone who just experimented with pot or other drugs, the reason they didn't keep using is important."

So teach your children well: Tell them why you experimented with drugs — and why you chose to stop. Then take it a step further: "Tell them what you saw in your friends who made the same decision and in those who continued to use," Seppala advises. "It's helpful for kids to see how we make decisions in general, and this decision in particular. It's a big one, and it's definitely one that all teens are going to have to make."

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