DASH of SAS: Whether it’s sex or drugs, telling kids 'Just don’t do it!' doesn’t work
If you’re a parent of a teenager like me, you probably want to have “The Drug Talk” with your kid.
Except you don’t know what to say.
You’re not sure how to start such a conversation. You try different openers in your head and rehearse a few lines, fumbling over words but somehow always ending up with one message: “Just don’t do it!”
I know that’s what I did. I walked into my 15-year-old’s room one evening, looked earnestly into my child's eyes, held the hand and said, “Don’t do drugs, please. Promise me.”
Of course, my child nodded.
For good measure, I made my child swear never do drugs.
I didn’t realize it then but my message about drugs was an "abstinence-only" one.
[I didn’t know what else to say!]
I should have known better, that as with the sex talk, when it comes to drugs, telling your children “just don’t do it” or “just say no” is not likely going to work. It doesn’t offer other options for the myriad of situations that they are likely to encounter.
The problem with that singular “abstinence-only” message is it does not leave room for the moments when your teens might say “yes”, “maybe” or “sometimes”.
You’re going to need a back-up plan.
I asked the help of No Box, an NGO that advocates for evidence-based drug policies and interventions for people who use drugs. My friends there sent me an info packet that shows how to get started on the drug talk, and I loved it.
The packet, which is entitled “Safety First: A Reality-based Approach to Teens and Drugs” was written by Dr Marsha Rosenbaum, a medical sociologist and a mom, who has done extensive work on substance abuse. It started out as a letter to her son who was about to enter high school and it was published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The letter generated a huge response from other parents who wanted to know more about how to have the drug talk with their children. Dr Rosenbaum expanded it into a book that is easy to read and understand, basically taking out all the intimidating parts.
Let's break down the information into the following talking points:
- It isn’t only drugs that we should look out for
The teenage years are years of experimentation. These are the years when they are likely to be exposed to alcohol, smoking, and drugs like marijuana and party drugs or other harder drugs. Each of these substances alters the way we feel or see things and in varying degrees. It gets you high, and when you are, judgment is impaired and comprehension is hampered.
- Differentiate between use and abuse
Any form substance use involves risk but it is important to distinguish between “use” and “abuse”. For example, a social drinker does not make someone an alcoholic. In the case of drugs, a “drug user” is not to be equated to someone who is “drug dependent.” This distinction is especially important when considering interventions; not all forms of drug dependency require rehabilitation.
Related to this, refrain from using the words “drug addict” or “addict”.
Such terms are loaded with connotations and demonize drug use. Your child may have friends who use drugs, and calling them “addicts” may be seen as labeling and condemning them.
UNAIDS in their Terminology Guidelines suggests using “person who uses drugs” or “person who injects drugs.” These terms describe the behavior a person is engaged in rather than characterizing a person.
- Don’t scare, actively listen
Do your homework and present your children with science-based data when it comes to drugs. For example, know and understand that the likelihood of becoming dependent on marijuana is much less compared to cocaine or heroin.
Don’t scare them by distorting information. Present them with science-based information and trust them to decide for themselves. They appreciate that better.
- Understand the legal implications of drug use
Drug use and possession of drug paraphernalia (like needles and syringes) are punishable by law (Republic Act 9165).
Minors aged 15 and below are assumed to be exempt from criminal liability, however, those over 15 but below 18 are liable if they acted with discernment.
- Lastly, be open to the possibility that your child may experiment
But remind them (and yourself) that they can always call you for help or for a ride at any time of night – no judgment or questions asked.
As a journalist, my work schedule is erratic and often takes me out of the country, so my child and I established a "Call Tree," a list of people that she may call in my absence at any time to bail her out of a troublesome situation. Each person on the call tree is briefed about the no-judgment/no-questions asked policy and asked to uphold and respect it before they are assigned. Alternatively, we have set up Uber on her phone.
(As I write this, it has occurred to me that we should have a hard copy-no-batteries-required version of this "Call-Tree" set up on her wallet.)
It can be overwhelming, but the conversation on keeping safe from drugs need not happen all at once. Consider breaking up the discussion into smaller conversation topics:
- Think about the consequences of your actions. Apart from getting into trouble with the law, teens may face all sorts of school sanctions if caught intoxicated or with drug possession.
- Know what the risks are. This can range from the dangers of driving under the influence to overdosing on party drugs.
- Be safe and keep their friends safe, too. If they do decide to experiment, make sure they are with people they can truly trust will take care of them. Remind them not to ever get into a car with someone who has been drinking or using drugs.
- Lastly, as with sex and drugs, for young people, abstinence is always the better option. But again, we have to have contingency plans in place. It doesn’t mean we are encouraging our children to try drugs, but it does mean that we’ve got their back if ever they do.
The principles of Safety Firstare premised on having non-judgmental conversations based on science-based information rather than scare tactics or making moralistic pronouncements.
In fact, a lot of principles that I apply to sex talk apply to drug talk.
My favorite quote in the Safety First handbook reminds us that “prevention is fundamentally about caring, connected relationships and an open exchange of information. There are no simple, ready-made answers, just thoughtful conversations.” – Rappler.com
Ana P. Santos is Rappler’s sex and gender columnist and independent journalist. In 2014, she was awarded the Miel Fellowship by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C.