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Should you tell your child about your past drug use?

A study was recently released that looked
at the effect parents telling their children about their past substance use had
on the young person’s beliefs and behaviours around drugs. The research
received a bit of media attention and pushed the line that admitting to past
drug use was counterproductive.

When any research is reported on in the
media it is important to go to the actual published paper and see what was
exactly said before accepting the published headlines. Certainly the authors
state that, based on their evidence, “parents should reflect on the potential
negative impact of talking about their prior use”. They believe that in doing
so there is the potential to ‘normalise’ drug use and “downplay” the negative
consequences of using substances. That said, they have also made very clear
that there are many limitations to this study. The major one is that the
parent-child communication was not observed, it was all self-report data
provided by the child. As far as I could see there was also no information
collected on the context of the conversation.

Don’t get me wrong – this is an interesting
study and as the authors say, it illustrates that some messages provided by
parents “may be helpful and others may be harmful”. So what are my views on the

First off it is important to remember that
most parents do not have a problem answering this question as most people have never
experimented with illegal drugs. The one illicit drug that is most likely to be
used by Australian parents is cannabis, but that still is only a third of the
population. That means that most Australians (two thirds of them) have not used
the drug.

However, for those parents that may have
experimented with illicit drugs in their youth, this is a question that they
all dread their child asking. Unfortunately, it is a question that is almost
inevitably raised at some stage during their child’s teenage years. When it is,
essentially parents have one of three choices – they can tell the truth, they
can avoid the question and hope it goes away or they can lie through their
teeth! It really is a dilemma and one for which there is no simple answer.

Every parent will need to deal with this
question in their own way. Each family is unique and there are so many
different ways of handling this problem and the outcome will be different each
time, depending on so many factors.
In my book ‘Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs’ I
told the story of Nicole and Peter who decided to deal with the issue in their
own way:

Nicole is a mother of three and back in the
late 1980s and early 90s was a big party girl. Together with her then
boyfriend, now husband, Peter, she was amongst the first generation of regular
ecstasy users who attended large dance parties and inner city nightclubs. Her
drug of choice at that time was ecstasy, but she also used a variety of other
drugs including cannabis, speed and LSD.

Her eldest daughter, Hannah, is now 15
years old and is getting to the age where she is beginning to ask questions
about her parents’ partying years. Nicole is now facing the dilemma of how to
talk to her teenage daughter about her drug use during a significant period of
her and her husband’s life. Should she tell the truth, avoid the subject or
simply lie and say that it never happened.

“This time was always at the back of my
mind, even during the early days of my drug use,” Nicole told me. “What was I
going to tell my children when the time came when they asked me about my

She decided to lie. In fact she has become
extremely ‘hardline’ when it comes to the messages that she gives to her children
about drugs. As far as Nicole is concerned, drugs are extremely dangerous and
she wants her children not to use them.

“If I found out that Hannah was
experimenting with any drug I would be horrified. I know it sounds
hypocritical, particularly with my history, but as I’ve got older I’ve really
become more and more worried about my children and drugs. Maybe it’s because I
know so much more about them and the risks involved with their use. I simply
don’t want my children to use.”

The effect that this hardline has had on
Hannah is interesting. A bright girl who is doing very well at school she told
me that illegal drugs are not a part of her life, although she has just got
into the party scene and drinks alcohol occasionally – something her mother frowns

“I would never talk about drugs with Mum
and Dad,” she told me. “Mum has made it very clear about how she feels and
often talks about people she knew who took drugs that got into real trouble. I
can’t even imagine what she would do if I did try drugs and she ever found

Unfortunately Nicole’s attitude towards
drugs appears to have caused a real barrier in terms of communication between
her and her daughter.

“I have a friend who I think has a problem
with drinking,” confessed Hannah. “She drinks every weekend and I do worry
about her. I’d love to be able to talk to Mum about it but I wouldn’t dare. I
couldn’t trust her to keep it secret and not tell my friend’s mum. In so many
other ways I have a great relationship with Mum but I wouldn’t even try to talk
to her about this – she would just over-react and hit the roof.”

What is difficult to fathom out with Nicole
and Peter is that when asked about their drug use and the experiences they had
during that time they both talk about it in a very positive way. Her
justification for lying to her daughter is that she wanted to scare her and if
she had told her the truth it would have simply made the drug too attractive.

Nicole and Peter are not alone in this type
of major turnaround. There are many parents who did experiment and had
‘positive’ drug experiences and then when they have children of their own and
they start to get older their memories of their own drug use fade and they
become very ‘anti-drug’. My concern is what would happen if Hannah ever found
out the truth about her parents’ past? The breakdown of trust here could be
devastating for this close-knit family.

So what is the answer?

In my humble opinion I actually believe
that honesty is the best policy. Now this doesn’t mean that you should be
ramming the fact that you once had a puff of a joint in 1983 down your
children’s throat. However, if you’re asked a direct question by your child, I
believe that you should answer it honestly.

We know that by far one of the most
important elements of a positive parent-child relationship is honesty and
trust. When you ask your child a question about something that they have done
you would like them to answer it honestly, doesn’t your child deserve the same

So if you have used drugs what should you
say? To my mind the most important thing to focus on in your answer is why you
stopped using (if you’re still using illicit drugs there are a whole pile of
other issues that need to be talked about in another blog entry!). If you think
about it, the reasons you give to your teenager about why you stopped are so
important and say so much about the ‘real’ risks associated with drug use. It’s
also an honest and real approach and young people, in my experience, really
appreciate that. Some of the reasons that parents have given to their children
for stopping include the following:

“I used cannabis once or twice and it just
made me feel really sick. Some of my friends really liked it but it just wasn’t
me – I didn’t enjoy smoking and I made the decision not to do it again.”

“Cannabis was a big part of my life for a
couple of years. I used almost every week until I finally realized that I
wasn’t doing anything else. I only hung out with other cannabis users and I
lost contact with other friends. Although it was fun at the beginning it
certainly wasn’t at the end.”

“Drugs can be fun. I certainly had a good
time for a while but the bad experiences started to outweigh the good and I
just got bored with the whole thing.”

“I stopped smoking when a very close friend
of mine got busted. He got caught smoking a bong in a park and found himself at
a police station. It wasn’t until that happened that I really realized that
cannabis was illegal and you could really get into trouble if you got caught.
It just wasn’t worth the risk.”

“I stopped using when I met your mum. She
thought drugs was for losers and forced me to make a decision – it was her or
the dope. I chose your mum!”

All parents want an honest and open
relationship with their child. If, god forbid, something should ever go wrong
and a child needs help with an alcohol or other drug problem, every parent
hopes that they are the first port of call for their child when it comes to
help and advice. However, if you’re not honest with them, why in heavens would
they ever be honest with you?

Looking for information or support services on alcohol or drugs?

If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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