Lead by example or lie? How to talk to your kids about past drug use

Worried that 'do as I say, not as I did,' is hypocritical parenting? Some experts would disagree.

Imagine you just caught your 16 year-old smoking pot. The yelling and grounding threats have quieted, but the tension in the room remains heavy.

“You just don’t understand how it is,” she mumbles without making eye contact.

“Yes I do… and that’s the problem,” you respond, almost immediately regretting it.

“Why, did you smoke pot when you were my age,” your daughter asks, looking directly at you for the first time in over an hour.

Your heart skips a beat. Suddenly the conversation has taken a whole new direction. Since she was old enough to understand the concept, you’ve strived for total honesty from your child. In return, you’ve tried to be as frank and open with her as you could. Now you’re presented with a moral dilemma you weren’t prepared for: do you lie about having smoked pot as a teenager so as to not justify her behavior, or admit to it and risk looking like a hypocrite?

“There isn’t a lot of definitive data on this type of situation, but most experts in child development don’t recommend you lie to your children,” says Sharon Levy, MD, MPH, director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Children’s Hospital Boston. “I tell parents not to give out information before their kids are ready, and that they don’t have to disclose information just for the sake of it, but I do recommend that if their kids are asking, they answer honestly.”

Levy says parents lie or avoid discussing their own drug and alcohol past with their kids because they’re scared admitting past use could be construed as normalizing the behavior or that it could weaken their role as an authority figure. But the most common (and potentially dangerous) attitude she encounters is parents who casually assume their children will ‘outgrow’ drug use naturally because that’s what happened to them at that age.

“I often hear parents say things like, ‘My son is smoking marijuana very heavily, but I did it when I was his age so I’m not too worried,'” she says. “But parents can’t assume their kids will grow out of something just because they stopped using at certain point. Alcohol, marijuana and other drug use are all associated with the top four causes of mortality in adolescents. So even if parents used drugs without serious consequences when they were young, if their adolescent is using he or she is still at good deal of risk – just as if a parent who drove without a seat belt as a teenager and never got in a car accident doesn’t protect their children in a crash now.”

Sharon Levy, MD, MPH
Sharon Levy, MD, MPH

Science has also made discoveries in recent years proving that the teenage brain is far more susceptible to the dangers of drugs and alcohol than originally believed. Studies show the human brain isn’t fully developed until the mid 20snot the late teens as doctors once thoughtwhich means youngsters who experiment with drugs and alcohol are at greater risk for developing life-long addictions or engaging in risky behaviors than adults who use drugs or alcohol.

In light of these findings, Levy says the importance of talking freely with teenagers about drug and alcohol use is even more crucial. But while honesty may be the best policy when discussing it, total disclosure isn’t always necessary. Talking openly with a child is healthy, but it shouldn’t detract from the parent’s overall authority or control of the conversation as it relates to their child’s safety.

“Parents may choose to share everything or just a little bit, but what’s really important is that they don’t glorify their past drug use or get sidetracked,” Levy says. “It’s all very dependent on circumstance, but in most cases I don’t think a parent needs to go into a lot of specific detail when questioned by their kids about their past. Sometimes just touching on it can be enough.”

Even if you haven’t always been straight with your children about your formative years, Levy says it’s not too late to come clean. Sometimes a parent’s admission to former transgressions can be the perfect way to begin a meaningful conversation about the medical dangers associated with teen drinking and drug use.

“Parents who haven’t always been truthful about their past can revisit the topic by letting their kids know they were too embarrassed to admit it at the time,” Levy says. “When parents lie about their past drug use they’re telling their children, ‘It’s okay for us to lie to each other about things like this.’ The message we want to give our kids is don’t use drugs, but if you have tried them let’s talk about why rather than lie to cover things up.”