By Maia Szalavitz
As America moves toward marijuana legalization and an opioid overdose epidemic shows few signs of waning, the question of how parents should talk to their kids about drugs is more urgent and complicated than ever. And with Generation X—the druggiest in history—now confronting teenage offspring, the issue of how to frame their own past use makes the discussion even trickier.
Almost everyone wants their kids to make smarter decisions about sex and drugs than they did. Yet no one has figured out a magic formula to get teenagers through those years when their brains pull them towards risk. Still, the generation raised on DARE and “Just Say No” in the 1980s seems to have settled on practical ways of reducing harm and avoiding tragedy.
Josephine Cannella-Krehl, 49, is a social worker and the mother of two teens and a 21-year-old. Raised in New York City, she now lives in Florida and recalls just how useless her own drug education was. It consisted of handouts that claimed to give “just the facts” about various drugs, while detailing their many purported dangers in sensational fashion.
“I remember thinking it was a bunch of lies,” she says, explaining that her older siblings’ friends were regular pot smokers. Far from being unmotivated or stupid, she tells me, they “were the most creative in their graduating class and almost all of them received full scholarships to top art schools… The rhetoric simply didn’t fit my experience. I figured if they were lying about that, they were probably lying about all of it.”
Juliet, a 34-year-old writer and artist living in Cleveland, has a 14-year-old son and remembers her experience with DARE as infantilizing—not helpful. When she was in sixth grade, cops from the program didn’t exactly connect with her or her friends.
“The officer would bring in a teddy bear for one child to hold during the sessions, which included a coloring book. I found this approach age-inappropriate, juvenile, and condescending,” she says. “Learning that hallucinogens would make the world look like a cartoon come to life, or that weed would make me want to fly, actually sounded like great fun was to be had. I wasn’t persuaded not to use drugs or alcohol.”
These experiences jibe with research data, which finds that such programs are either ineffective or actively counterproductive. Today, both moms are taking a very different line with their own children.
“My husband and I decided early on that we would have a truth-based approach,” Cannella-Krehl tells me. “I find the best approach to be to ‘sneak’ in the important stuff when nobody’s focused on it as opposed to sitting everyone down for ‘the big talk,’ and to keep things as lighthearted as possible.”
Juliet, who has overcome her own drinking problem, uses herself as an example for her son, now a high school freshman. “I’ve been honest about my own mental health issues and how self-medicating is not the answer,” she says. “I taught him that drinking is normal in our culture, but that normal is having a couple of drinks when you are old enough, and it’s nothing that special that you need to try in high school.”
Both moms see state marijuana legalization initiatives as a reason to talk about drugs and drug laws—not panic.
“I share my opinion that I’d rather see marijuana legal than illegal because I believe it is far less dangerous than alcohol,” Juliet says, adding that refusing to make a big deal out of it helps prevent teens from seeing drug use as a sweet way to rebel.
“As cannabis becomes more mainstream, I think it’s even more important that kids understand the true dangers,” says Cannella-Krehl, citing issues with edible dosing and the fact that regular pot is much less risky than synthetic “pot like” substances sold as legal highs.
Jerry Otero is the youth policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and works to develop materials for parents negotiating teen drug use. The group’s research-based “Safety First” program emphasizes honesty, accurate information and building a trusting relationship above all. Otero was open with his son, who is now 21, about his own marijuana use—and emphasized the importance of holding back to avoid fucking up college opportunities.
“I told him that I preferred that he wait and at every juncture, the decision should be reasoned and deliberate and always, with the question, ‘Do I have to do it now?'” he says. Otero adds that his son, who’s now in college, didn’t try marijuana until he was 20 and has not had any problems with it.
Kathryn Bowers, a 48-year-old author with a 16-year-old daughter, came to use the same approach via research she did for her recent book, Zoobiquity, which looks at parallels between animal and human health. She was struck by data showing that early exposure to drugs is much riskier than later; in fact, 90 percent of all addictions start in the teens or early 20s, and the odds of developing an addiction later in life if you have never had one at that age are extremely low.
“My main takeaway is that the earlier the substances are introduced into an organism, the greater the effect and the more chance for addiction,” she says. “The longer you can wait, the better… that was message I was trying to put out for my daughter.”
All of the experts and parents I spoke to feel that the most important aspect of drug prevention has almost nothing to do with actual drugs at all. Instead, it’s basically just about building a caring, trusting relationship between parents and children. Obviously, this tack won’t always prevent drug use or addiction, but it can create a context in which, if problems do arise, they get detected and dealt with earlier.
This is completely different from Reagan-era tactics, which tended to view all drug use as immoral, emphasizing punitive and stigmatizing messages to try and prevent it with little consideration of what causes addiction. The catastrophic failure of the War on Drugs is clear to today’s parents, who found the old way separated them from their own loved ones without preventing use or addiction.
You can get an even more visceral sense of how the ‘talk’ is changing when you consider how parents are talking about the current opioid epidemic.
Rather than calling for crackdowns on drug users, today’s parents want access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone; rather than opposing needle exchange programs as “sending the wrong message,” they are fighting to create them to prevent the spread of disease. And rather than prison and “tough love,” today’s parents want evidence-based treatment.
Julie Stampler, 43, a small-business owner in New York, is the mother of three, two of whom are teens. Her brother died of a heroin overdose, so her children are well aware of the drug’s dangers.
“I always say that if my brother’s death is going to help in any way, it’s hopefully going to help save my children from a similar fate. So we talk about heroin, we talk about overdose prevention,” she says. Stampler’s stepfather, ironically, is the chemist who invented naloxone, the antidote to opioid overdose.
“Parents need to educate themselves,” she says, and “have an ongoing conversation and open door policy for the children to be able to talk to them without fear of judgment or consequence.”
For teens, “attention is the best prevention,” Juliet concludes. So even if love and trust aren’t always all you need, without them, parents are liable to just make things worse.