Study: Parents Are Better Off Not Admitting They've Tried Drugs

Trying to get kids to learn from adults' wayward pasts seems to make them more open to experimenting.


When I was in high school, this guy who billed himself as a comedic motivational speaker came to perform an assembly about Why We Should All Say No to Drugs. He took, as his approach, the confessional monologue, starting with the first time, as a kid, he tried alcohol -- "It was awesome" -- to his later experimentation with pot -- "It was really awesome" -- to just about everything else -- "You guys, it was just, I"

This all built up, of course, to a moral. And that moment, where he described looking at himself in the mirror, seeing that he had become a sad, cracked-out version of his former self, and had thrown his life and family away for a cheap high, was powerful.

But so were the 45 minutes or so before that when he grabbed -- and kept -- our attention by describing how much fun drugs were. Some parents weren't thrilled, asking, did he really expect a roomful of teenagers to have the empathetic capacity to learn from his mistakes?

A new study in Human Communication Research suggests that a better strategy for adults may be to deny, deny, deny. It took, as its subjects, middle school students of Latino and European Americans descent, two groups that report the highest rates of alcohol and marijuana use by eighth grade. Researchers asked the kids about the conversations they'd had with their parents and friends about alcohol, cigarette, and drug use, along with whether their parents had told them anecdotes about regretting past substance use. They then had them report on their own drug or anti-drug attitudes, along with their current experience using drugs and alcohol.

Open parent-child communication about drug and alcohol use, the researchers found, correlated with kids being more strongly anti-drug. But when these conversations included references to parents' past substance abuse, the kids' anti-drug sentiments were actually reduced.

Like the motivational speaker, the researchers believe that the parents may be sending contradictory messages. On the one hand, they're imparting values that say kids should never use alcohol or drugs. But by admitting that they themselves have tried it, they may unintentionally be normalizing that behavior. The kids may get the impression that drug and alcohol use is more common than they thought, or that their parents wouldn't really disapprove of them trying it. 

Same goes, they add, for parents who claim not to condone drinking but then offer to give them safe rides home from parties, or who only allow their children to drink under their supervision.

Does this mean that if kids ask their parents if they've ever tried drugs, their parents should flat-out lie to them? The study shows that grabbing for a true-life example might not be the best way of approaching the subject, but it didn't get the parents' perspective about why they felt it was important to tell their kids about their past experiences. Some would probably argue that they value honesty above all else, even when that means there's a risk of their children repeating their mistakes.

Incidentally, I later ran into that same motivational speaker, who gave a similar talk at my college orientation. The high school thing, he said, had been something he'd tried out ... once. They never ending up asking him back. 

Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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