This week I was asked by a lovely mum, obviously struggling with this issue, how best to begin the conversation with her 13 year-old son. She had heard me say during my presentation that I believe that parents should start setting rules around parties and alcohol by no later than Year 7, well before most of them have come into contact with alcohol or be invited to gatherings where it may be an issue. She was fine with that but how was she meant to bring the subject up? Was there a good way to do it?
We keep telling parents to talk to their kids about alcohol and drugs and to have the conversation early. Its a mantra that keeps getting repeated but parents are rarely told what they should be saying and how to say it. Unfortunately, many parents make the decision to talk to their child about drugs when a crisis situation occurs. This 'crisis' can be as serious as finding out that their child may actually be using drugs or drinking alcohol or when their child is invited to a teenage party for the first time. Trying to have a discussion about drug use at a time like this is unlikely to be a positive experience for either you or your child. Your teenager will feel uncomfortable at best, and threatened at worst, by this issue being raised at this time. As a result, you are likely to feel frustrated and angry at their response, leading to greater friction and a breakdown in the parent-child relationship.
It is important to remember that it is impossible for any relationship to exist without positive communication. The most important thing to remember when it comes to talking about any difficult subject is that it's not a five-minute 'talk' — it's about building an ongoing dialogue. Of course, there will need to be an opening conversation and that can be difficult but once you've broken the ice it will get easier. As your children grow up, they will need more and more information, so start early and build on the conversation as your teenager matures.
There are lots of opportunities for parents to introduce the issue of alcohol and other drugs to their children. Rather than setting aside a specific time in the day to sit down with your child and raise the topic, thus making the whole experience like a school lesson, parents should look for opportunities in everyday life to talk about the issue. Here are just a couple of tips to consider to help start the conversation or ensure that it goes as smoothly as possible:
- Start the conversation in the car. There's no better place to discuss a difficult issue than when it's just you and your teen (or pre-teen) in a car - they can't get away and they don't have to look at you!
- Start by talking about their peers and what they're doing. Young people can get very defensive when you ask them about their behaviour but they're often more than happy to talk about others. It can even be easier if you talk about classmates and not their friendship group - they're much more likely to tell you about those kids that they don't particularly like and what they think about their behaviour
- Use what you see in the media to start the conversation. Unlike the talk in the car, this is best done in a family context. News stories, movies and TV programs, even popular music can contain alcohol and other drug themes – asking a simple question about something you've just seen or heard while watching TV and getting their views on it can plant a seed that you can use at a later date
- Use your own alcohol use as a conversation starter. If you drink wine with the family meal or you have a brown paper bag with a couple of bottles in it under your arm when you go out socialising, take the opportunity at that time to quickly discuss the role alcohol plays in your life and the rules you follow when you drink, e.g., you never drink and drive. Ask them what rules do they think they will have when they get older and they choose to drink. What rules do they think would be important?
- Don't try to cover everything in one talk. The first couple of chats (possibly even grunts from their end!) may just be about trying to find out what they're thinking about the issue and their level of exposure. Setting rules and boundaries at this time could be problematic. You should certainly clarify your expectations around their behaviour in this area if it is appropriate to do so, but try to discuss your values in a more general sense rather than explicitly laying down rules at this time
You may not believe you have much of an influence over your teenager but your children are going to learn an awful lot about your attitudes and beliefs towards alcohol and drug use from these type of conversations. They may not always be easy but they'll be well worth the effort! One more thing to remember is that all the starter conversations (those mentioned above) should be relatively low-key and informal if they are to be successful, however, when it comes down to the 'let's talk about rules' discussion, both parents should be there, if at all possible, and it should be conducted in a reasonably formal manner (we're not talking 'judge and jury' here but sitting down together, no distractions or other children present). Of course this isn't always easy, particularly in a split family, but if it can be done it illustrates a united front and if there are any negotiations that are to be made, everybody is on the same page.
One word of warning though …. if your child does not wish to enter the conversation for whatever reason, do not push. Talking about difficult subjects like this can be embarrassing for an adolescent and any effort to make them can be counterproductive. Make sure you leave the door open for them to come to you should they ever wish to discuss the issue and move on. At some point another opportunity will arise (even if unfortunately it ends up being due to a crisis of some kind), take a step back and wait for another opportunity to arise when you are able to start a positive dialogue. It will happen!