What's the Right Answer When Your Teen Asks If You've Ever Smoked Pot?

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Marijuana Beign Rolled Into Cigarette  Marijuana Being Rolled Joint Cigarette

I've never smoked pot. Okay, I did take in plenty of secondhand smoke at the Hollywood Bowl during a few concerts, and at more than just a few house parties. But I never, ever took a hit! As a parent, this fact is one of the few things I do not have to sweat over when I’m talking with my kids about drug and alcohol use and other risk behaviors.

I think the cautionary conversations about risk behaviors are so much easier to have nowadays. We have so much more information about the ill-effects of illicit substances on growing bodies. And with kids so focused on celebrities, we have so many good (or bad, depending on how you look at it) examples of beloved film and music stars who have crashed and burned behind some dangerous habits and behaviors -- some fast and sudden, like Heath Ledger and Brad Renfro -- some slow and painful to witness, like Whitney Houston and Lindsay Lohan. So we can be clear and specific and stern with our warnings and our family limits.

But what happens when your kids ask you if you ever participated in such shenanigans? Inevitably, your teen will ask a tricky question such as:

  • Have you even tried marijuana?
  • How much did you party (i.e. drink) in high school? In college?
  • When did you lose your virginity?

Yikes! What do you say, and how much? Dr. Perri Klass addresses this dilemma in his New York Times article, Q. Did You Ever Smoke Pot? A. It’s Complicated. Dr. Klass highlights what a conflict this creates for parents who pride themselves on openness and honesty. You want to be frank, but not everyone’s story plays out like the perfect cautionary tale. You turned out just fine, after all. You may even have more fond memories than negative outcomes. So how do you tell the truth of your experiences and not create for your child what Klass describes as a "kind of I-did-it-and-I’m-fine parable?"

If you know anything about teens, you know that any admission of wrong-doing on the parents’ part will almost certainly come back to haunt them.

  • “Well, you did it. Why can’t I!”
  • “At least I’m not doing it as much (or as badly, or as stupidly) as you did!”
  • "Aren’t you being a hypocrite, Mom?”

According to the article, research shows the more parents provide information and the better they model appropriate behavior early in their children’s lives, the lower their children’s risk of substance abuse will be later on. According to TheAntiDrug.com, a teen drug and alcohol prevention website:

Kids who learn about the risks of drug use from their parents are 36 percent less likely to smoke marijuana than kids who learn nothing from them. If you talk to your kids about the dangers of drug use, they are also 50 percent less likely to use inhalants, and 56 percent less likely to use LSD - just because you took the time to talk to them. Research has also shown that kids want to hear what their parents have to say - in fact, 74 percent of fourth graders wish their parents would talk to them about drugs.

Apparently, this includes information about a parent’s own bad behavior. Another recent study cited in the Klass article said that "many teenagers believed that parental honesty about alcohol use was a positive influence." So how do you sort out what to say and how? The following are the suggestions put forth by Klass and the pediatricians and psychologists she relies upon in her article:

1. Every family is different and there are no fixed rules about whether to disclose or to what extent. The important thing to find out is why your child is asking. Ask him or her why they are asking and try to ascertain what is going on in their world to inspire such questions.

2. If you decide to disclose, take into account your child’s developmental age. "You answer a question from a 12-year-old and a 22-year-old in different terms and in different detail," says Dr. Janet F. Williams, professor of pediatrics at University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

  1. 3. There is a wide, wide space between denying the truth and telling every detail. You don’t have to tell them everything. But if you decide to be closed-mouth about it, you shouldn’t lie, according to the article.
  2. 4. When you do tell your tale, don’t glorify the risk behavior. And if you feel you made a mistake, you should express that belief.
  3. 5. Finally, the article suggests that parents treat the questions about their past behavior with respect and as opportunities to keep communications open.

The painful truth is that when your children, who may view you as the virtuous mother, find out that you behaved badly in your youth, their perspective is likely to shift. I think they may feel let down a little bit, and the behavior that they may believe was out-of-bounds and totally unacceptable to you is no longer viewed that way because you actually did it. They begin to see you as a real human and a mere mortal. This can’t be all bad, and surely it must be a necessary step toward adulthood.

TheAntiDrug.com reminds us that the focus in conversations about risk behaviors should not be "a parent’s past behavior, but the child’s future." (That’s a very nice quote to throw into your conversation with your kids.)

Here are some other suggestions the website offers for the tongue-tied parents among us. When your child asks you if you ever smoked a joint or some other tricky query, keep the answer short and sweet, and say something such as:

When I was a kid, I took drugs because some of my friends did. I thought I needed to in order to fit in. We didn’t know as much as we do now about all the bad things that can happen when you smoke marijuana or use other drugs. If I’d know then about the consequences, I never would have tried drugs, and I’ll do everything I can to help you keep away from them. Everybody makes mistakes. When I used drugs, I made a big one. I’m telling you about this, even though it’s embarrassing, because I love you and I want to save you from making the same stupid decision I made when I was your age. I drank alcohol and smoked marijuana because I was bored and wanted to take some risks, but I soon found out that I couldn’t control the risks — or the loss of trust of my parents and friends. There are much better ways of challenging yourself than doing drugs.

See? That wasn’t so hard!

Contributing Editor Gina Carroll also blogs at Think Act: Proactive Black Parenting and Tortured By Teenagers.

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