If your teenager or young adult is beginning to experiment or use drugs and/or alcohol, you may be wondering what you can do to help them make healthy choices. While there are a variety of ways you can reinforce certain behaviors over others (coming home after school clear-headed instead of high) and put consequences around behaviors you want them to avoid, your own relationship with substances may be worth examining.
What if you like to have a glass of wine with your husband in the evening, but now your son is binge drinking? Should you become a teetotaler? If your daughter is abusing Adderall, does it matter that you smoke cigarettes? (Does it matter to your daughter? Does it matter to you?) If you like to drink beer and watch football on Sundays, should you let your college age (but under 21) son join you in those beers? Perhaps you take Ambien when you can’t sleep. Should you let your teenager know this? Should you leave your pills where she can find them?
Many parents do not use drugs or alcohol at all and others use them in ways that are not at all problematic. Still others struggle with their relationship with substances. The impact of your substance use choices does have an impact on your child’s decision and we will say upfront: If you drink excessively, use any illegal substances, or take prescription drugs not as prescribed you are sending the wrong message to your child about substance use. This is not a moral statement, but a practical one. If you don’t want your child to break the rules or use substances in a problematic way, you have to look at what you are modeling with your own substance use choices.
If you use substances, legal or illegal, openly or secretly, and your child is older than twelve, assume your child knows. We’re not saying that using any substances on your part is necessarily problematic for your child, but it will have an impact—along with everything else you do. Practically, your child may feel permitted or even encouraged to use by the presence and availability of substances. Emotionally, he will learn the reasons why you use substances (e.g.,this is how you pick yourself up, knock yourself out, handle the pressure, or blow off steam) and potentially learn that he should manage his feelings in the same way.
As you think this through, we encourage you to be open and honest with yourself about your own relationship to substances and how it may affect your child. Consider whether change on your part would help support change on his. Is he triggered by a stocked liquor cabinet or an open bottle on the table? Tempted by the pills you keep in the bathroom? Think of it this way: if your child was diabetic, would you fill your cupboards with candy and eat ice cream in front of him, or would you try to model balanced eating, share non-sugary treats, and promote healthy food habits in your household?
You model behavior whether you mean to or not; with awareness you can model the behavior you want.