Talking to Your Parents About Drugs and Alcohol

Ever feel like you’re two different people – one you show your parents, and then the real you? Ever wish you could show your parents who you really are? Or instead of saying “nothing” tell them what really happened in your day? As a teenager you want to keep some things private, and you may be nervous to change your parents’ image of you or make them angry or disappointed, but some things are too important to keep quiet.

Your parents may be clueless, outdated, and horribly embarrassing – but they’ve lived a lot of years and have seen a lot of things (many of which you probably don’t even know about). No matter how lame they are, and no matter how many rules you’ve broken, your parents love you and will do everything they can to help if you come to them with a problem.

Why Bother?

Having a good relationship with your parents can be mutually beneficial. Not only will your home environment be more pleasant, but you will have someone to turn to for advice and help. Also, your good behavior will result in more privileges, more rewards, and more opportunity to do the things you want to do. Your parents want to be part of your life (beyond handing over food, money, and shelter); they want to know you’re safe, that you listen to them (at least a little), and that you appreciate their efforts, even if sometimes misguided.

You may feel that starting a conversation with your parents isn’t your job, it’s theirs. Any gaps in communication may indeed be partly their fault, and they may not be as mature and put-together as you’d like, but as you get closer to adulthood, the more you have to take responsibility for the situation as it is and work to make it better on your end. Plus, they’re likely to trust you more if you stop hiding things and initiate the conversation yourself. Most teens report feeling better just getting their concerns out in the open.

Don’t know what to say? Guess what – neither do they. By now you’ve probably learned that parents are human – they make mistakes, they feel awkward discussing certain topics, and they want to be liked, just like you.

“But they don’t understand.” Quite possibly true. But do you understand them? Try to put yourself in their shoes for a minute – feel how much they love you, how scared they are of the mistakes you might make, how desperately they want you to succeed. There are few universal things in life – but a parent’s love for a child may be one of them. You owe it to each other to at least try to meet halfway.

Despite the love you have for each other deep down, there’s something about parents and teens that makes even the most innocent of conversations explosive and full of conflict. In order to make sure you walk away happy with the way you approached the subject, do a little planning in advance. Before speaking, think about how your parents may react to news of your drug use. Will they be angry, hurt, sad, speechless? Anticipate their reaction, put yourself in their shoes, and plan a composed, thoughtful response.

Mom, We Need to Talk

After you’ve given it some thought, pull mom or dad aside, whomever you’re more comfortable with, and start talking. Make sure your tone of voice, words, and actions convey a willingness to communicate and find solutions to the problem. If you say nice things with a nasty look on your face, you may not get the response you were looking for.

“But I don’t know where to start!” Try expressing that fear and asking your parent not to be angry with you. You might start by saying, “I want to talk to you about something but I’m afraid you’ll get mad.” When your parent encourages you to open up, tell him, “I think I might have a problem with drugs.” If you aren’t ready to open up, tell him you need to talk to someone professionally, a therapist or doctor, but you’re just not ready to talk to him about it yet.

Here are a few tips for approaching what may seem like an impossible conversation with your parent:

- Do some research. The Internet is full of information about drug and alcohol abuse, teen treatment programs, and other resources. That way, if your parents aren’t informed, at least you will be.

- Find the right time to talk. Wait until your parents are relaxed and can give you their undivided attention.

- Stay on topic. Don’t let issues or resentments from a few weeks ago sidetrack you or your parents.

- Look for opportunities. If you’re worried that bringing up the topic of drugs or alcohol will instantly make your parents assume you’re doing it, wait for a TV commercial or news story to come on that addresses the topic, and start a conversation based around the story.

- Ask your parents about their adolescent years and what they learned about drug use.

Keeping Your Cool

Whether your parents can help or turn out to be part of the problem, talking about your drug use is an important first step to finding a solution. Sometimes your parents might be slow to respond or may not react the way you had hoped. Anger and blame are often signs of underlying fear or helplessness, or even more likely, feelings of personal failure. If they get angry, stay calm and approach the topic another time. Don’t storm out of the room, throw a fit, or tune out.

Try to be patient – your parents may feel shut out of your life or may be hesitant to trust you. Even parents need a little reassurance to open up. Also try to hear the message or emotion behind their words; often, parents are just as frightened, angry, and confused as you are. Do the same for yourself – are your words conveying what you truly feel, or are you getting defensive and argumentative?

Pay attention to any patterns you see in the way you and your parents communicate. Maybe one of you shuts down completely and stops talking or listening altogether; maybe you get stuck blaming each other or engaging in a war of the wills; or maybe neither of you is willing to compromise. Point out these patterns as they appear and discuss ways to break the cycle. Talk about the things that set each of you off (e.g., a certain look or tone of voice) and take responsibility for your own patterns.

It can be incredibly difficult for people to understand each other’s point of view, especially if they have strong opinions on an issue. But try to listen to what your parents have to say, and ask that they do the same. In the end, you may have to agree to disagree, but at least you’ll understand where each other is coming from and can mull over the other person’s perspective over the next few days.

If all else fails, remember that by no means are parents your only resource. You can also reach out to close friends, teachers, or religious figures you trust and respect. But don’t count your parents out completely, especially on the important stuff. The beauty of family is that they can be an undying source of strength and support when everyone else goes back to their own lives.

Making your way in the world is tough, but you’re not alone. Give your parents a chance to do their jobs and guide you through some of life’s toughest challenges.