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Talking with your kids

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Do I connect with my children at mealtime? While walking or driving to school or activities? At other times?

Do I invite my children to spend time with me while doing household chores and cooking? Shopping? Walking the dog? At other times?

Do I spend time individually with each of my children?

Do I take advantage of opportunities to kick-start a discussion about values and important life choices; for example, when a current news story is raising such issues?

Listening in a way that really “hears” what your children are saying and talking to them about your views and experience are two of the best things you can do to help your children develop self-esteem and have positive values. Your children will respond to your efforts to connect with them if you keep at it and show that it really matters to you. So do it often, openly and throughout their growing-up years.

Setting the stage

Create an environment for communicating easily with your children by:

  1. spending time with them, both at home and while taking part in activities outside the home
  2. choosing the right time to talk to your child and trying to be available when they want to talk to you
  3. knowing your children—their activities and interests—and getting to know who their friends are (and the parents of your children’s friends)
  4. speaking calmly and being prepared for resistance when emotional or difficult topics (like drug use) come up
  5. not being resistant or emotional yourself
    Children need to know that their parents are going to listen and not hit the roof if a problem arises. They are much less likely to open up and seek help and advice if they expect you to react with anger or panic.

TIP Stay tuned into your child’s growth and development. Most new parents read books about stages of development when their children are young. Remember, though, that there are also many changes as your child enters and moves through their teens.

Talking about alcohol and drugs

In talking to your children about drugs, it is important to acknowledge that people who use drugs do so for a reason. Drugs usually serve a purpose or meet a need for people, at least initially. Prescribed drugs are used to prevent disease, fight disease or help the body function. People may also take drugs, however, to change the way they feel; for example, to get high or to help them forget problems or to relax. If used repeatedly in this way, drugs often end up increasing a person’s problems rather than reducing them. Many drugs are addictive, and street drugs present additional risks since there are no controls on the quality, content, safety or strength of street drugs.

FamilyWhen discussing drugs with your children, try to be clear and concise while explaining the facts and discussing the pros and cons of use. You don’t need to protect them from the facts but neither do you want to go out of your way to scare them. For example, caution should be taken when discussing the addictive potential of any drug with your child. There are many factors that lead to the development of an addiction, such as amount, frequency and method of use, predisposition to addictive behaviour, and other risk and protective factors. Absolute statements such as “You will be addicted after a single use” are difficult to prove, and may ultimately hurt your credibility when it comes to sharing important information about the harmful effects of drugs.

Opening up the discussion

Let your children know that you are open to conversations with them and want to hear their thoughts. You can do this in a casual or a more planned way (for example, at a family meeting). To open up the discussion, it is helpful to:

  • try to avoid lecturing or sermonizing and focus more on having an open discussion
  • keep a relaxed attitude and encourage your children to ask questions and to tell you what they think
  • try to understand your child’s point of view
  • don’t expect teens to agree with you about everything just because you are the parent. (Keep in mind, though, that parents have rights too!)
  • develop active listening skills
  • be as concise and objective as possible when explaining the facts about drugs and discussing the pros and cons

TIPUse open-ended questions such as, “Why do you think drugs are becoming a problem at your school?” Don’t ask, “Have any of your friends asked you to try a drug?”

How to listen actively

  • Listen to both the spoken word and unspoken feelings. “I hate my friends and never want to see them again.” What does that mean, really? Is your child talking about being hurt, lonely or rejected? Or is there some other explanation? Your response might be, “You must be feeling pretty angry to say that.”
  • Don’t interrupt or let anyone else interrupt.
  • Look at your child as they speak. Maintain good eye contact, and respond just enough to show you are listening. The responses can be physical (nodding, shaking your head or touching your child’s arm) or verbal (“Really?” “That’s too bad”).
  • Ask them to explain if you don’t understand their point of view. Repeat the idea to make sure. Make comments that show that you’ve heard what they said and that you understood.
  • Try to hear and respond to the feelings behind the statements made. Don’t try to guess what your child feels. Ask!
  • Use I-messages (“I feel, because...”) instead of you-messages that blame or put down (“You are being silly”).
  • If the timing is bad, ask if the discussion can wait. Then follow up as soon as possible. Take the time needed to talk about issues that are important to your child.
  • Try not to judge, but let your child know how you feel when they say something negative or angry. For example, “I’m very sorry that things are not going well with your friends.” (If that is what you really feel. Don’t pretend.)
  • Some children will be more ready to talk than others. Accept that. When children get older, they need more privacy.
  • Don’t feel you have to “fix” everything. Children learn independence when they are involved in solving their own problems.

If you have used illegal drugs in the past, and your kids ask, will you want to tell them? (Consider that if you decide to tell them, your experience might help you to be specific and believable about drug use. You may also want to remind your kids that some things about drugs have changed. Marihuana and hash, for example, are many times stronger today than they were 20 years ago.)

What do you say to your children if you are a smoker or heavy drinker and they ask why you haven’t quit?

Responding in a helpful way

Be prepared to respond to your children’s questions and challenges. There are many approaches you can take, including asking friends and other family members for help.

Some keys to success include:

  • focusing on being honest and open about your own values
  • learning as many of the facts about drugs as you can, and being prepared to help your child make sense of conflicting messages that they may be getting
  • emphasizing that using alcohol and other drugs is a choice that we all make and an opportunity to practise making good decisions in our lives
  • letting them know that it is natural to have problems and make mistakes and that they can count on you if they ever need help

Admit it when you don’t know something. But when such a situation arises, try to get up to speed quickly or to find someone else in the family or community who can help answer your child’s questions.

Another alternative might be to research the question with your child. It’s something you can do together!

Next page... Helping your kids make good decisions